Being a photographer, what does it take?
Richard P Walton, FSWPP
While looking back at my almost-11-year journey as a photographer, a lot of things have become clear. I now realize that for a big part of it I was absolutely rubbish at taking photos and didn’t even know it. If I had sought out advice from other photographers in the industry who were far more experienced, I could have saved myself a lot of stress, money, and would have been at least five years ahead of myself now. I spent so much time worrying about the wrong things. I hate seeing other photographers go through the same pain I did and make the same mistakes I made along the way. If I can help just one person get on board with this, teach them that photography comes from the mind and imagination, then learning it the hard-and-long way wasn’t a total waste of my time. I’m going to share what I wish somebody had shared with me in the early days of taking photos and trying to make a living from it. If you have been taking photos and making a living for ten or more years then this is probably stuff you already know. Well done for sticking with it and now hopefully living the dream.
1. The secret of successful photography is repetition.
There is an old saying, "Art is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration." This is something that may take a while to sink in for you to fully appreciate, but the fact is there aren’t many prodigies who take amazing photos from the minute they pick up a camera. It took me a long time to discover that the only real way to improve and get better at taking photos was repetition--practice and lots of it. In order for creative ideas to flow effortlessly from our minds through our cameras we must have the technical side nailed. The trick is to free your mind from any technical issues that get in the way so you can concentrate on the idea of the image in your head. I studied Wing Chun (a style of kung fu) for a while when I was younger. As in any martial arts, the training is repetitive and ritualistic. Another good example is a musician who plays scales and practices chords over and over. In both cases the reason is not so they can be really good at practicing martial arts or playing chords. The reason is so when the time comes to fight or play, they will do so automatically without consciously having to decide what to do. If a martial artist had to think about what punch block he had to throw next, he wouldn’t block the punch coming towards him. It is the result of muscle memory that lets him block punches effortlessly.
The same goes for photography. We must take the same photos over and over again until our muscles respond to our imaginations without having to go through the brain to do it. In my earlier years of taking photos I wanted to learn how to use flash off the camera. Every time I tried, the background in the image would be dark, almost pitch black. If I changed something the flash would totally blow out the subject. What I saw in my head didn’t look anything like the rubbish I was capturing on the back of the camera. I looked for shortcuts, tricks, books, online tutorials, and nowhere could I find anything that put it in a way I could understand. I gave up for a while because I thought I didn’t have what it took.
Then one quiet day I decided to try again. To no great amazement I was still rubbish. I still couldn’t figure it out. This time was different though. I kept trying, and the more I tried the more the images on my camera were starting to look like the images in my head. Practice makes perfect as they say, but how many of us simply give up the first time because it didn’t come out like we had visualized it in our heads? I used to believe any artist was born with the ability to take amazing photos and understand the technical side of things easily, but that isn’t true. We have all gotten to where we are thanks to repetition and practice. If you really want to get good at a particular lighting setup, Photoshop technique, or anything else, the secret is to simply keep practicing over and over again until you are sick to death of it and start seeing it in your sleep.
Nobody was born an amazing photographer, but we were all born with the potential of becoming an amazing photographer.
2. Get critiqued!
One of the most important things we can do, not only in the early days of learning photography but when we are at any level of photography, is to get critiqued. Of course it’s painful to hear that you are failing in some aspects, but the great thing is you’ll never see it until it’s pointed out to you. If you can take a critique without being bitter, then your work will begin to improve immediately.
When I was learning photography in college, I thought I was great. The teachers liked me and said I was producing nice work. It wasn’t until I found the photography website www.skateboardphotography.com (which is sadly now no more), I realized I was really quite rubbish! The website was a place where all levels of photographers would post images for critiquing. I soon found out that I wasn’t even producing average work, my work sucked, big time! Not only did my work suck, but I couldn’t even tell the difference between a good photo and a bad photo. I continued to spend months getting slammed and was even told to sell my cameras. While it was a harsh environment, I cannot thank those guys enough. I really started to learn things, things which I still apply in my photography today.
Getting critiqued was and still is a great way to learn to open your eyes. I still ask for critiques all the time, it keeps me on my toes and helps me to learn something new all the time. Knowing that a fellow photographer is looking at my work stops me from becoming lazy, as they will spot anything sloppy or anything else that might be out of place. When I’m getting critiqued I sit down, open my mind, and shut up! A critique is a perfect chance to see your work with a new pair of eyes, and it’s certainly not a place to sit and defend your work. The photographs you give your clients will have to stand on their own merit when you aren’t there to explain them.
When a fellow photographer has taken time and effort to give you critique, he/she is giving you a gift. You should receive it that way, with humility and grace. If your ego is too big and can’t take someone’s opinion then you might be in the wrong job.
3. Trends in photography.
Remember spot color (black and white with a touch of color), did you do it? I did. Now it’s the vintage look, photographers making photos look like they were taken thirty years ago. These are trends, and while we all want to be original artists there may come a time when we have to use trends. After all, we’re running a business. The trick with trends is to not force your client away from them, but if they want that style, add your own take to it. Sometimes it’s worth adapting if it means helping our business. If you do not want to follow the trends, then don’t show them on your website and in your marketing material. You will attract what you show at the end of the day, so if you hate spot color, don’t have any traces of it on your site. However, if a clients asks you for it, don’t be too proud to provide it.
There are lots of starving artists in the world because they are too pure for their own good.
4. Using reference and being inspired by other photographers.
It’s amazing to be inspired by other artists, and I fully agree it’s a good thing to look at another photographer’s work, but we should try to not copy other's work. For example, if you like wedding photography, consider looking at other types of photography instead of wedding, perhaps fashion. This way our brain picks up the subtle bits it likes, and these then end up in your photos making them unique and distinctive in a world of copycats.
Something that is more important than we realize, and something I wish I was taught, is the traditional basics of photography.
Rembrandt lighting, the rule of thirds, posing, etc. Even the most famous conceptual artists in the world had to learn the basics, if they had not then even their most expressive work wouldn’t have looked right.
If you really want to be an artistic innovator, make sure you learn the fundamentals, and make sure you know plenty about what you are photographing. For example, skateboard photographers don’t just have to learn to take pretty pictures, but they have to learn about what they are photographing, what is the best time to press the shutter to show the trick in its best position, what angle will make the trick look more impressive, and what composition will make the skateboarder pop off the page with no distracting backgrounds.
We all have the ability to create original images. There is no moment the same in this life, and it would be impossible to recreate another photographer’s image perfectly. The closer you get to another artist's work, the more of a ripoff it will obviously look.
Try to find the artist within yourself. That’s the point I’m trying to make here.
5. Getting a style.
I looked for a style for years. I worried that my work didn’t have its own appeal and wasn’t unique enough. The fact is that while I was trying to get a style, I wasn’t concentrating on learning the basic technical aspects of photography. After all, a carpenter can’t craft a beautiful piece of furniture if he doesn’t know how to use a saw. It’s important to understand that a style will develop. It will come to you when you are ready. Going back to martial artists, they first learn the fundamentals then they learn to perfect these methods so that they become second nature, then they can start finally doing their own version.
I was trying to run before I could walk. I hadn’t learned the fundamentals properly. I realized that I should try to perfect my photographs first because my own personal style could only develop by doing this. I had to be a good photographer technically before I could ever have a style and create my own visions. I had to stop trying too hard for a style. It’s like if somebody tells you to act natural, as soon as you try you feel awkward.
I see a lot of photographers trying to have style, but really they are just copying the greats and haven’t learnt the fundamentals that these greats spent years and years learning and then perfecting.
Standard, but well-done traditional photography is the key to any successful photography business. Now that I understand this, I feel comfortable with my ongoing, developing style.
Style is something that comes when your mind and hands work in unison effortlessly. When you realize your mind is unique, it will start to show in your work.
The point when a photographer starts to become cocky and feel that he/she thinks they are great is generally the time they stop progressing, and their photography hits a wall. It’s clear to see that the most successful photographers in the world are some of the humblest. The guys who think they are the most successful, are generally arrogant idiots. Being humble and putting in hard work is worth more than anything in the world. There is always going to be someone better than you, and there is always going to be someone worse than you.
Being grateful for what you have is important too. I hope I never get to a point where I am 100% happy with my work and think I am something special. Imagine a glass full of knowledge, how full would yours be? Mine is practically empty. I have so much to learn and feel I’m only at the very beginning of what I want to achieve. Too many photographers walk around with their glass full.
7. Don’t be a money chaser.
I haven’t become rich from taking photographs, but the lifestyle and experiences I have had over the ten-year journey have been worth way more than any amount of money.
Money is bits of paper, and the sooner I realized that, the sooner I started enjoying photography properly and living a healthy, fun life. Making a living from photography is no different than working for somebody else. You start at the bottom and work your way up the ladder in the hope of eventually becoming the boss. It might not happen overnight, and plenty of people will tell you this industry is screwed and there is no future in photography. The fact of the matter is that it can and will happen as long you do things your way and stop listening to everyone else in the industry.
Photography is a great way to earn a living and beats working for one instead. Sometimes it’s worth thinking about how lucky we are to get paid to take photographs. There are people grafting twelve-hour shifts on building sites in the freezing cold, people risking their lives to save lives, and people starving on the streets in the world.
If you want to make a lot of money from photography then learn how to be a good photographer so you can work for the high-end markets. Shoot for show before you shoot for dough, then the dough will come.
8. Forget about the industry.
You are not the photography industry, you are an individual who enjoys taking photos and exploring all the possibilities of being a photographer.
The state of the industry should not affect you and your business.
I’m sick and tired of hearing about how bad the industry is. People constantly say that other photographers are cheapening the trade, making it hard for us to earn decent money any more. The state of the industry cannot be blamed for the state of our businesses. I know lots of photographers who are financially doing better than ever before and why is this? It's because they know their market and know how to market themselves for it.
If you have competition then you need to start thinking how to be different, then you'll no longer have competition. Is Ford in competition with Porsche? They are two different companies with two completely different markets, selling two completely different products. However, they are still selling cars, just like we are selling photographs.
Put yourself in a position where you are viewed as an individual artist, offering something unique that separates you from the photographers people see as clichéd.
9. Don’t worry too much about kit and all the latest technology.Good photography comes from the mind and imagination, no piece of kit or technology can compete with our minds. The best feeling is creating something you’ve never seen before. Cameras can take photographs, but they can’t create beautiful pieces of art. We all have the gift of being able to think for ourselves, and as photographers we have the amazing ability to show other people our visions on paper. We do not need the latest expensive kit to do this.
I wasted a lot of time and money on kit during the early years. I always thought that if I bought a better camera or better lens I would take better pictures. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. I know nothing about mechanics. Do you think that if I bought a set of Mac tools I could refit a clutch? I bet if I gave a good mechanic some rubbish old tools, he would be able to fix that clutch on the side of a motorway.
I have an old Centon flash that cost £25 on eBay. That flash, along with a Canon 20mm 2.8 lens on my Canon 5D mk1, have produced most of my portfolio. In 2010, I shot all of my studio portraits on a Canon 50mm 1.8 (the cheapest one, around £70). That lens has made a fortune. I now use a Tamron 2870mm 2.8 that I paid £200 for secondhand. That Tamron shot 90% of my wedding images last year and all of my studio work.
Don’t get sucked into the hype. Spend the money on a nice holiday instead, you’ll have some great experiences and some great photos even if you only take a compact camera.
10. Know your market.
This is something that is really important, look at your work and business and ask yourself where you feel you should slot in. Are you the bottom end of the market, middle market, or the higher end of the market? A bit like Porsche, Audi and then Vauxhall. Ask yourself honestly, which one am I?
There is no shame in being the bottom end of the market, you just have to make sure you are set up for it. Don’t try to undercut others and work in the bottom of the market if you simply can’t afford to. If the photographer down the road can get away with charging £400 a wedding, this doesn’t mean you will be able to. So it’s important to thoroughly look at your business costs and times before you start copying the other photographer’s going rates.
The same applies to the other markets. You can’t offer high-end wedding albums to the low-end market if you aren’t charging high-end prices.
Regardless of taking photos, business is business, and the best investment you make is in some good marketing and business training.
Running a photography business is no different than any other.
11. Follow your dreams.
It’s important to keep focused on your dreams. Remind yourself why you first fell in love with photography, don’t get into a trap of photographing things you would have never thought of photographing. There are loads of areas in photography, and they are all capable of being a successful businesses. Concentrate on the area you love, not the area that looks like the easiest way to make money. Some people put weddings into this category. While they look appealing, and people think we get paid £2,000 for a day’s work, unfortunately that's not the reality. Studio portraiture can and does make a lot more money for a lot less work.
12. Finally, have fun and create fun.
Don’t forget that photography is fun. It’s important to remember that creating fun experiences for our clients is just as important as giving them great images. After all, a photograph is purely a memory of an experience.
If the experience was good fun for them, the photos will simply remind them of it.
Thanks for reading. I hope this has been of some use to you, and I wish you all the best in your photography career. Don’t forget to be an individual, and keep searching for the artist within you.
Until the next time, Richard P Walton FSWPP