In 2010 I wrote, in one long caffeine-fueled night, an article that would become the most widely shared piece that I’ve ever published on my blog called 10 Ways Not To Become A Successful Photographer. It was part missive, part rant, and part confession about what I saw a lot of people doing wrong in the photography industry at the time – the mistakes and toxic misconceptions that I saw myself and photographers around me, both emerging and experienced, making every day that were poisoning our minds and our work. I’ve read and re-read it so many times over the years, because in many ways it became a litany to stave off my own negativity when things got tough or I felt myself slipping back into those shitty patterns that were holding me and my friends back when I wrote it.
It’s five years later now, and I sometimes find myself wondering if that piece I wrote all those years ago is still relevant, I’ve changed a lot, and this industry constantly evolves. I find myself thinking more about issues that never occurred to me when I wrote the original piece, and in some cases, issues that grew out of those original ten points. The last few weeks on the road I’ve been making tons of notes about the things I see happening in this business – both with myself and others who’ve spoken with me about that original article when the felt they had gotten a bit off course.
No one can tell you how to be successful in this business, that’s up to you, but here are ten more thoughts on how to NOT fuck up your chances of making it in this industry.
11. Don’t Understand Your Relationship With Stress
We all have our own ways of reacting to and dealing with stress. Personally, there are times when I can thrive on it for short bursts, I can handle unexpected turns on a production and adapt with a smile on my face, I like when the pace of business gets brisk and I feel like I’m spinning a lot of plates. I do okay with that kind of stress. It’s kind of exhilarating. On the other hand, I can get tripped up and really freaked out by little things. I’ve lost sleep because I’ve been anxious about the wording in a client e-mail, I made myself sick with worry in the days leading up to a few big jobs – that kind of constant background worry is the kind of stress that can get me really wound up,
We’re all emotionally invested in what we’re doing (at least you better be if you want to create good work) and that naturally leads to us getting stressed about it, but beyond that we have a whole host of practical stresses that we deal with every day as small business owners and creative entrepreneurs: money, staff, professional relationships, client retention, and vendors that can all affect our stress levels. Combine and compress all that creative and professional anxiety and it can really start to have an effect on your health, mindset, relationships, and career to the point that it starts to tear you up a little (or a lot) inside. Identifying what stresses you out, why, and how badly can give you some major insights on things you might need to work on personally, professionally, and creatively. It can also remind you of the importance of building a support team who can help you better deal with those tasks and situations that creep up on you. More importantly, you also need to have a means of dealing with your stress when it does show its face that hopefully isn’t of the “I eat a whole order of cheddar bay biscuits and chase it with a bottle of gin” school of stress management. Some common options are exercise, meditation, obsessive collecting, cooking, and music, but whatever works for you is cool – just go easy on those cheddar biscuits.
12. Get Caught Up in Defining and Quantifying Everything
It used to be that I couldn’t get online without seeing some pointless argument about Canon vs. Nikon or Mac vs PC – but in the last few years I think we’ve actually become more micro-obsessive as an industry when it comes to categorizing, segmenting, and ranking everything. The discussion isn’t about what brand of light is better, but what KIND of light is better, and even more disturbing, what kind of photographer is better. I see statements like these pop up all the time:
“I’m a natural light photographer, it’s a more honest way of taking pictures”
“I only shoot film, shooting digital isn’t photography”
“If you don’t know how to use speed-lights you aren’t a professional”
“If you only make 49% of your income from photography, you aren’t really a photographer”
“If you use composites in your work, you aren’t really a photographer, you’re just a retoucher, REAL photographers do everything in camera”
Unless you’re describing a genre that you work in – like fashion, food, or journalism, I can’t remember a time when the word “photography” needed so much modification. There are a million stories of how each of us came to photography, and a million different interpretations of the medium – to try to distill it all down into a linear ranking or a tidy little package seems not just absurd, but a rejection of all the ephemeral and intangible things about someone’s history, taste, and experience that make their individual images so compelling. Finding a unique way to frame your experience is a great way of setting yourself apart, and it’s best done with your work itself, but I feel like at some point there was an inversion, a moment when we started to use these defining terms in a really negative way – and rather than focusing on pulling ourselves up, the focus has shifted to pushing others down by encapsulating them in classification and categorically invalidating them.
13. Don’t Take Ownership of Your Mistakes
Ever met someone who just can’t take criticism?
I don’t mean in a “OMG they read the comment section and are handling it really poorly!” way, I mean the sort of criticism that matters – constructive criticism from clients, respected colleagues, and even themselves. You have to be willing to accept that you are going to fail in this business, likely many times over, and that it’s the ones who use these failures as learning experiences that are going to survive and hopefully thrive. The last thing you want to do is stick your fingers in your ears, shut your eyes, and start screaming “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND MY ART!”
It gets shared a lot, but there’s a part in Zack Arias’ Transform Video that’s always stuck with me where Zack reminds his audience that “Avedon sucked, Karsh sucked, Adams sucked… …Every photographer in all of history was a horrible photographer for some period of time. They learned, they grew, they had dark days, they persevered. That is the way of the artist.” I think it’s one of the most important lessons that any photographer can learn in this business that is so saturated with ego and defensiveness. It’s okay to screw up if it makes you better in the end (just try not to do it when clients are watching, and if you do, own it).
Every single one of us is going to make mistakes at some point in our career – some will fall flat on their faces and suffer comical embarrassment, others will slide headlong into the cavernous maw of catastrophic error, but all of us can recover from these situations if we can honestly identify and accept what we did wrong and work to correct it. It’s the ones who dig a hole and start to pull the dirt down on top of themselves, looking to shelter themselves from having to face their mistakes that have to worry most – because after a while that safe hole you’re hiding in starts to look an awful lot like a grave.
14. Spend More Time Talking About Your Work Than Making It
I don’t like to break things down into archetypes, but sometimes it seems like there’s a revolving cast of common characters in every creative community, fellow photographers who seem to almost accidentally fall into these roles.
There’s the photographer with a million good ideas and two million excuses as to why they can’t ever pull them off: “Plane tickets are too expensive,” “I don’t have a studio,” “My camera isn’t good enough,” “I need better lights.” This guy can talk himself out of anything before he even gets close to starting,
There’s the photographer who is so enamored by past successes and gripped by the fear of ever having to outgrow them that all they ever talk about is that one amazing shot they grabbed in 1992. Photographers like this also tend be the kind of people who complain about the industry a lot. They’ll be the first to give crazy-eyed reactionary rants about how things have changed but do very little to grow and adapt.
There’s the one who is actually pretty talented, but so consumed by self-sabotage or impostor syndrome that sometimes they seem frozen in place, unable to actually create anything without tearing it to shreds moments later. These are the ones who spend a lot of time beating themselves up verbally and can’t take compliments very well. They tend to make just as many excuses as the first guy, but focus on more internalized factors than the external scapegoats. You’ll hear a lot of “I suck,” “I don’t deserve this,” “Why don’t you realize that my work is awful” from them.
Worst of all, we’ve likely all been (or will be) these people at some point in our careers, where we seem to be spending more time talking about our work than actually making it – and that’s actually pretty natural for people in creative careers This isn’t a job where you punch out at 5:00 PM and go home to play video games without a care in the world. We tend to internalize a lot of what we do, because what we do is so tied to our own emotions, thoughts, and experience – so we often take this job home with us. It’s not surprising that sometime doubt, hubris, fear, helplessness, defensiveness, and a whole host of other dark feelings can creep in, and a byproduct of that is shifting our focus from creating to talking about creating – becoming a photo wantrepreneur.
I want to take a second here to be clear that I am not at all discouraging people from talking about their work or photography as a medium. I think a discourse about the changing nature of photography and how it relates to communications, society, commerce, and art are more important than they ever have been, and In many cases, talking through some these issues frankly, with an honest colleague, friend, or mentor can be both therapeutic, cathartic, and exactly what you need to right your course. It’s when talk becomes a surrogate for your work, a smokescreen, that you have a problem. Talking about creating images is often lot easier than creating images, and we as humans tend to take the path of least resistance.
15. Not Knowing When to Say No
There are so many draws on your time, finances, and sanity out there, and you’re going to get pulled in a lot of different directions in this world. Sometimes the exuberance of starting to gain recognition for your work can lead you to say yes to everything: Annoying Uncle Frank promised a friend you would hook him up with some new portraits? Done. Restaurant you get lunch at needs some food shots on the cheap? Why not. Regular client offers you an assignment you know you can’t make money on? Ok, but just this one time…
Saying yes is a great way to gain experience, but as your skills and ambition grow you’re going to start to develop both focus and the experience to recognize red flags. The reasons might be time, interest, or money, but understanding the power of those two letters can do wonders for how you think about yourself as both an artist and a business person. Don’t be a dick about it, but find a way to say no that is firm, but polite, and leaves the door open for future communication.
The cool thing about learning to say no with style and grace is how much more it lets you say yes to the things you really want to do – the ones that really can be life changing. Do you really want to shoot those three freebie jobs for friends that your heart really isn’t in? or do you want to spend a week going on that fantasy road trip to photograph America’s last drive-in theatres? Do you want to spend a month photographing that fastener catalog you know you won’t really turn a profit on? or do you want to spend a few weeks shooting personal projects that will get you noticed by your dream clients? Saying no is scary at first, but over time it gets easer, especially as you better develop your sense of when you need to say it.
16. Trying Too Hard To Be Someone Else
Back when I played music there was always this one guy around obsessed with being just like whatever flavor of the month rock star he was obsessed with at the moment. He bought the same guitars, played the same way, adopted the same style, and really went out of his way to avoid ever having to do anything that didn’t directly emulate what he saw as a surefire formula for success. His idols and obsessions would change over time, and he would reinvent himself totally every couple of years despite actually being a pretty talented guy. He plays in a cover band now.
Do you want to be in a cover band?
There’s a fine line between influence and obsession, between creating an homage to someone’s work and outright re-creating their work – but the message here isn’t about copying, or influence, or biting someone else’s style or ideas. I could write a whole other post about all of those things that would be just as long as this one. What I want to warn you about is losing yourself inside of someone else’s creative vision – becoming so wholly consumed and fixated on other’s work that you lose everything about YOUR work that’s interesting. I love Rodney Smith’s work, but the world already has a Rodney Smtih, and I’m a lot more interested in telling my story than trying to relive someone else’s. If you force yourself into a mold that was meant for someone else you’re going to really break off a lot of the edges and corners of you that don’t fit, and those little jagged pieces are what makes you great and unique. Keep forcing it and you might break apart completely.
17. Be Careless With Your Choice of Mentors and Critiques
Find an amazing community to be a part of, and learn from people whose work excites you, but be wary of the homogeny and sameness that can result in taking the advice of people who want you to be more like them and less like you too seriously. You’ll see this in a lot of online groups where unsolicited critiques run rampant. There will be a push for the images presented to fall in line with that group’s status quo, an urge to keep everyone on the baseline. Often, it seems like it isn’t even conscious, but if you watch someone comment on someone else’s work long enough, after a while you realize that a lot of the suggestions and comments they make are ones that will bring the work more in line with their own worldview of photography. Do you really want to aspire to be more like someone who’s work you don’t really like that much?
Critique can be an unbelievably important tool, especially for a developing artist, but the crowd of people out there willing to share their opinion on what you’re doing gets bigger every day, and a lot of them don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. When you’re looking for a critique or mentor to help you refine your vision you need to be conscious of avoiding the masses that lean towards the average and unexceptional. Instead, be discerning and search for those singular and unique voices – the ones with a real opinion and point of view. Be vocal about what you want to improve and specific about what you want them to comment on so that you can grow with purpose and urgency. Consider the lessons you learn from them and take what helps you, but never be afraid to try to prove your mentors and critics wrong – not through words and argument, but by action and result – as you see your own vision through.
18. Get Too Comfortable
Complacency and stagnation can be incredibly hard things to recognize when you’re deeply mired in them. We gradually slip more and more into our routines and comfort zones until they smother us. One of the most common examples of this that I see is when a photographer starts to get a good amount of work in – they’ve worked hard to develop their marketing and contacts, their work is at the top of its game, and they have a look that’s in demand. Over the course of a couple of months or years they think they’re doing great but maybe they let their marketing slip or stopped pushing their skills – figuring that they’ve made it. All of a sudden there is a pivot in the industry, staff changes at client offices, perhaps a new agency takes over an account, or their look now seems dated and out of step with the market. All those months they went without marketing or developing new skills will come back to haunt them as their work dries up and they have to scramble to bring in some income just to keep the doors open. Getting too comfortable can leave you in a very uncomfortable position.
19. Don’t Manage Client Expectations
Once you get the basics of this photography thing down and start bringing in work, you suddenly realize you have a whole host of new problems in regards to communication and the ability to actually deal with clients – the kind of problems can lead you to complain in internet forums where a bunch of other people who have similar problems will pat you on the back and say “You know what? You’re right, your clients suck, and so do mine. It’s not your fault.”
But you know what? It’s kind of your fault.
Sure, there are bad clients out there, the legitimately dishonest or unethical type that give you 99% of your headaches for 1% of your income, the ones that you’ll probably fire after a couple of harrowing months. But most of the clients you’re going to end up having problems with aren’t out to get you, they are decent and honest people who just don’t know the ins and outs of your business as well as you do. Clients like this have a different vocabulary and a different background than you – some might be making their first foray into working with a professional, others might be used to different policies and working arrangements because they collaborated with a different creative for a long time, and some might be new to a position in an agency and still learning the ropes.
You need to work from the mindset that all of your potential clients have varied backgrounds and experiences, have radically different wants and needs, and are all going to ask different questions – and it’s up to you to know when they aren’t asking the right ones. Your client didn’t bring up a stylist? Ask if they need one anyway. Client doesn’t know what their responsibilities are? Give them a timeline. Client didn’t mention exclusivity? You better ask. Client doesn’t understand he difference between editorial and commercial licensing? Define it in the contract. Not using a contract? FUCKING START! Every time a freelancer works without a contract an angel kicks a puppy.
Make communication the most important thing in your business besides the quality of your work. Be patient with your clients and take the time to ensure sure that everyone involved is in synch. Ask as many questions as they do to make sure they understand your position before a problem arises. Otherwise, despite all the client blaming you do online, you’re the one who’s going to look like an asshole.
20. Go it Alone
You need a support team in your life, because there is only so much you can carry on your shoulders without getting crushed – this goes for both your professional and personal life.
On the personal side, you hopefully have several layers of support – friends and family who stand by you are a great and valuable resource, but don’t underestimate how much your local community of colleagues and photographers, the ones who understand the stresses of being a freelance creative, can help as well. Chances are they have been through the same issues you’re going through now. They’ve dealt with doubt, shaky finances, bad shoots, rough relationships, and a whole host of other problems that might be affecting you, and you can rest assured that there are scores of photographers who are going to come after you that are going to have these problems as well – do what you can to pay it forward in your community.
On the professional side, there is often a sense that the photographer is a lone-wolf, and at the beginning of our careers we do have to wear a lot of hats under both the artist and entrepreneur banner. We find ourselves doing design work, writing copy, taking care of scheduling, taxes, payroll, etc, all on our own. It’s a lot to handle, especially if you aren’t as expert in those fields are you are at photography, but sooner or later you have a revelation that there are people out there who put just as much time and passion into developing these skills as you do yours. Over the last couple years I’ve started working with a designer, a writer, a marketing consultant, a retoucher, and an amazing assistant. I’ve also developed really good relationships with my accountant, insurance broker, and banker on the business side of things. It’s made my life simpler, made me more focused on the quality of my images and servicing clients, and improved the quality of my brand and marketing across the board. Being able to find a group of people, whose skills I trust and respect, has been so important to growing my business in the last few years.
What mistakes are you making? What do you see holding you and others back from really being successful? What are you doing about it?