I am frequently asked: “What is the magic formula for being successful in photography?” I suspect this question has been asked for generations, and in light of the technological advancements and evolution of the art, I believe it will continue to be asked. This is something that each photographer must embrace and ask themselves.
As a dedicated analog photographer primarily using large format and sheet film amongst an overwhelming majority of professionals and amateur’s using digital technology, I feel like I may have some insight into how our forefathers may have felt in the past. I think about the struggles the “Pictorialist’s” must have had fighting to elevate photography to an “art form”. I think about the struggles Stieglitz must have experienced and the resources he invested in this quest. I assume it was a very difficult time for the photographer’s at the turn of the 20th century. When the next wave of change came, and it shifted to a more literal portrayal of subjects, the cycle continued just as it is today. I think we have been in a new cycle since the beginning of the 21st century regarding the development and ultimate proliferation of “digital photography”. Only after we are all gone and the people of that time will know its true impact on the art.
What does all this mean in relation to a photographers success? I suspect it doesn’t mean much. I believe it isn’t about the medium, it is about the photographer. I will share with you some “nuggets” that I have learned along the way that may resonate with some people and my hope is that my journey can help other photographer’s reach theirs.
In no particular order, here are a few lessons that I have learned along the way as well as a few thoughts about how to find your balance and happiness as a photographer:
- Photography is a delicate balance and interplay of art and science. We all bring our life experiences to the table and it is up to us to look beyond these experiences and push ourselves to grow and continually evolve. This is a life-long pursuit. It takes many years, and often decades to master any subject.
- The best things in life are free. This also applies to photography. The moments you share with an old sage, or a tip that you picked up from a friend are free. If you are willing to listen more than you talk, golden nuggets and kernels of knowledge are available.
- Everything a photographer needs to know technically has already been written. So go read it from a reliable source and stay off the photog forums.
- There are no formulas that I can give you to ensure “success”. Why pursue success anyway? The pursuit of success is your worst enemy. You may consider asking yourself what is the core of your passion relating to photography? It isn’t about the money is my guess. So, why we do chase it this way and put undo pressures on ourselves? The answer is, we don’t need to. The reframing of expectations are in order for most of us. My suggestion is to reflect often and look deeply within yourself and ask the hard questions. Keep an open mind and free yourself from modern stereotypes of “success”. For example: Why do you love nature? How can you help others by telling your stories via your images? Who is willing to listen to your stories? Answer these questions and you will be on a trajectory that will chart your course to a happier and more fulfilling experience as a photographer.
- Trading time for money is a losing battle. In the end, we will be out of time, and the money that was accumulated will have no value. Invest your time as if it were actual money. There are 86,400 seconds in a day (24 hours). Think of the seconds as dollars and think about how to invest wisely as your plan your day. The riddle with this conundrum is your bank account ($86,400) is back to zero the next day and you must invest and spend the money within the 24 hour period. There is no guarantee you will be here tomorrow to invest the next $86,400.
- You should notice a common thread amongst the greats of yesterday. They told stories with their photos. It is a very difficult task to convert a three dimensional world into a flat piece of two-dimensional paper and expect a human connection or emotional response to jump off the print. It takes years of learning and practice to be able to tell a story. It isn’t something you learn at school, it is a relentless pursuit and journey that only you can pursue on your own. I believe Ansel Adams one said that if you make 10 or 12 good photos in an entire year, you were very successful. I believe this and I would extend this thought with a star next to it and say, this count only begins once you have truly mastered your trade and are in a place mentally and emotionally, as well as have the skill to communicate your stories.
- One downside that I think hinders new photographers today is the perceived ease of “taking photos” with modern digital camera gear. In fact, this is what many photographer’s do. They “take photos”. Photographer and artists “create”. They create images that tell stories that originate from within. They have a burning desire to frame and tell their stories. It doesn’t matter what medium you use, if you can’t tell your story, then a long and difficult road lies ahead.
- Invest time in reflection and connecting with people and subjects that interest you. What are you radially passionate about? This is what you need to be photographing. For example, if your passion is sports, then become the best sports photographer that you can be. Use the right tools to express your passion and forget about everything else.
- Don’t get lost in the “technology trends” of today. The best photographer’s have the mechanics of their trade mastered, and they focus on creating, not upgrading to the next “thing”. If you are unfamiliar with Edward Weston, go learn about him. His equipment and setup consisted of the absolute basics (bare lightbulb hanging from a wire, and a contact printing frame that he used his entire life). But, when you look at his ability to transform a dirty toilet in Mexico or an everyday Pepper into “art”, then you begin to understand the quest you are pursuing.
- It is impossible to know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been. Invest time in reading and viewing the works of our forefathers. Some of my personal favourites, living and dead, include: Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Julius Schulman, Elliot Erwitt, Alfred Stieglitz, and Julie Margaret Cameron. Read their biographies, and view their prints at your local library in person. You will walk away from your viewing of their work inspired and wonder how in the heck you will ever be able to work on a similar level.
- Radical ideas create change. Complacency is one of your worst enemies as a photographer.
- Ignore common sense and the teachings of the world. Pursue your art and your mission, no matter the current feedback. If you live long enough and pay attention, you learn there are cycles to life, successes and failures. These are only short chapters and your story continues to evolve. Proceed with passion, an open mind, and a sense of gratitude.
- If you don’t already know a very knowledgable photog that can tell you all the nits and bits about the latest technology, you will meet him at some point. Go view their work and see if they can tell a story. You may be at a place where you need this knowledge in order to shore up your own technical shortcomings. I warn you, don’t rely on others. Put the time in yourself and master the technical aspects of your craft only to the point you move to the subconscious when creating your photographs. Any more more than that and you are off track.
- You have a relentless passion to tell your stories. This is a good place to start if you want to be a happy and fulfilled photographer. I am writing this article today with a fever and strep throat. I went out this morning to create some new images of a forest woodland scene. I have been waiting for the ideal conditions (after a rain, proper lighting conditions, etc) to tell this story. I knew the elements that I needed to tell this story. After I finished hauling my 65 lb. backpack and gear, I went to the doctor and got some antibiotics to get feeling better. Yesterday, I hiked several miles to photograph two specific waterfalls after a long week of Spring rains. I don’t tell you these stories about my experiences to encourage you to ignore health issues and go photograph at any cost, I tell you this to illustrate my relentless passion and quest I have for art and the stories I want to tell. The conditions were ideal in nature, and my health was less than ideal. I made the sacrifice to push my body to the limits for these stories, and now I am paying the price for those choices as I lay here in bed sick. But, I am okay with that and would not change a single thing.
- Figure out a way to keep the world at bay (pay your rent and eat). This may take many years or decades. You may never be able to pursue photography full time, but this doesn’t mean your contrition or impact is any less than anyone else.
- When it is time for your life to come to an end, what do you want others to share about you? Did you stand for something? Were you kind? Did you share? Were you an advocate to help others? How can these questions help guide your trajectory as a photographer? This is up to you.
- Invest in others, give back, and develop an attitude of gratefulness. It’s not about you.
I hope this article reaches at least one photographer that uses this information for self improvement. Be sure to send me an email if you have comments or thoughts.