Dear Young Photographer

Here’s what I know.

You grew up, like most, where you got trophies for participation, medals for winning bullshit things and undying support from your doting parents who just wanted to see you succeed — or be happy — whichever came first. Because even if you weren’t the best, they still wanted you to feel like you were. Gold star for being you, honey.


You graduate college full of promise and hope. Maybe you even have some stuff on your resume to back that up. It’s possible you won some awards and got some recognition as an “emerging,” talented, young photographer under-a-certain-age, like 25 or 30… or maybe some contest gave you an award of excellence or a gold medal or a nice pat on the back.

It’s possible an editor recognized your potential and passion and gave you an internship at some big-named paper of your dreams or some awesome little paper in the middle of nowhere known for their picture pages. You may have even been selected as one of the lucky ones for an exclusive workshop in a barn or hand-picked to document some small Kentucky town or even been one of the chosen few to have your portfolio reviewed by some fancy pants NY editors.

Everything is new and fresh and you’re having these amazing experiences, making pictures you’ve never made before, replacing old pictures in your portfolio every other week. And to make it even better, the gold stars from your folks have been replaced with “likes” and “favorites.” Little pings of electronic love that have been shown to have the same effect on your brain that some drugs do, where that reward center in your brain lights up and gives you a wonderful buzz.

Your rise is meteoric and your growth exponential.

Then what?

Then you graduate. The steam starts to wear off. Your support network has spread out around the country. Your little pond has gotten bigger and you’ve seemed to shrink. And you do the inevitable. It’s only natural.

You hit a plateau.


We all do.

Sadly, that first plateau is often ill-timed and masquerades as a quarter-life crisis. You’ve got a lot of pressure you’re putting on yourself. Society has a funny way of reminding people that there’s this order for things, and at this point your Facebook wall is exploding with friends’ puppies and houses and engagements and marriages and babies. And you start asking yourself… what have you done with your life?!

Queue the existential crisis.

It usually happens right around the time when you graduate, and you get a first job or your start working for yourself — and you realize you feel static. Your work is stagnant. Your strides aren’t as great. Maybe you’re making pictures for your editors and clients and not for yourself anymore.

You fall into this groove of doing what works, and settling for good enough. If you’re freelance, you realize that you’re getting hired to make the same pictures you’ve been making because you’ve been typecast. Or you’re going to the same festivals and parades and the athletes of the day/month/year all look identical and you’re making the same pictures every month, because that’s the subtle monotony of the routine newspapers and newspaper photographers fall into.


There’s no magic pill for getting over it and getting off that plateau, except hard work.

Creativity, perseverance and changing your routine are the best ways I know to get out of that rut. But so is something that seems counterintuitive, like embracing the plateau. If you look at a plateau as a positive, you’ll see it’s nothing more than a chance to refresh your batteries, reset your brain and breathe. If you’re going at 100mph all the time, you’re going to burn out. But I suppose that’s physics, or just common sense.

All those platitudes about this profession being a marathon and not a sprint have some truth to them.

And when you start to realize that settling down doesn’t mean settling, you can relax.

When you understand that you have to feed the beast, but you also have to feed your soul, you’ll start to figure out where that balance is.

And when you finally let go of the fact that a contest win, a gold star and a “like” aren’t going to make or break you, you can (hopefully) exhale.

After all, it’s just photography.


Realize how cool it is to actually be paid to make pictures for a living. Have fun with it. If it stops being fun and you start dreading it, start asking yourself why you’re doing it.

Early on, you make pictures for your portfolio and for other people (like professors, editors & contest judges). Eventually you’ll hopefully take some solace that you’re making pictures with a much bigger purpose. The images made for yourself and the people in them will resonate most long term. Keeping in mind that at the end of your career, your photos will be looked at collectively as a body of work instead of singles, stories and individual contest wins should help.

If I’ve learned anything so far, it’s this: Success has a lot more to do with character than it does with talent. So does life.

About the author: Melissa Lyttle is a photojournalist at the Tampa Bay Times. She believes strongly in the idea of community — both in visually serving the one she covers and helping make better the one she’s organically created around her.

She’s received honors and awards from POYi, NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism, UNICEF, the Alexia Foundation and more. But the most important things she’s probably ever done is create APhotoADay, an online community for photographers (that’s spawned a listserv, website and annual conference), and continues to give back by mentoring interns, coaching students at the Eddie Adams Workshop, and sharing her passion for photojournalism. For that, she’d like a gold star.

You can see and read more from Melissa on her website and Tumblr or by following her on Twitter and Instagram. This article originally appeared here.

  • That70sShirt

    The problem with “embracing the plateau” as the author puts it, is that it can lead to both creative and personal stagnation. I’ve been doing it for the past five years by shooting almost exclusively corporate videography and photography since I graduated art school. My clients want everything a certain way all the time, which often doesn’t allow for creativity. And because my paid work takes up all of my time, I’ve had no chance to pursue fulfilling personal work. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve started turning down paying gigs in order to give myself the time to do emotionally satisfying work, with the blind hope that I’ll leave this corporate stuff behind before too long.

    Don’t misunderstand me, the past five years have been a great learning experience, but be careful “embracing the plateau”. Only do so for the minimum required time. A lot of people, from all different types of careers, do for too long and end up working jobs they hate forever and lose sight of what they really wanted from life.

  • Jeremiah True

    I have found embracing it helps pay the bills but doing other things in the same vein in other venues allows for the creativity that is lacking. I can’t make it my full time job right now, but I find my client work, while enjoyable, to be very similar, as you said. I am trying to make it a point to pursue my artistic vision in other avenues and explore other techniques in that way as well.

  • Andre DF

    Well you just described what the author is referring to with “embracing the plateau”. Do the no-artistic-control-and-not-satisfying work so you stay in the game but give your creative mind a chance to relax until the feeling starts creeping up on you that you have to get back out there and create the emotionally satisfying, as you put it. Like you’re pretty much doing. :)

  • bob cooley

    Good Article and insight by Melissa,

    I’d also add that there’s also the reality that if you are working as a photographer for a full-time living, it is a job. There is no magical scenario where you are shooting what you want to shoot 100% of the time (and in most cases, even most of the time).

    You have to spend a good amount of time shooting jobs to pay the bills, and some of your assignments will be inspirational or creatively driven; but its unlikely that the majority of them will be.

    A photojournalist may spend 40% of their time shooting interesting things like breaking news, sports, concerts, etc. but the other 60% of the time you are shooting people speaking at podiums, people passing checks and shaking hands, etc.

    A fashion photographer may spend some of their time shooting inventive, creative images for a magazine layout, but will spend the majority of their time shooting tests, portfolio updates, color tests, etc.

    A wedding photographer may get to do some creative and inspiring things with the Bride and Groom pre or post wedding, but at the event, you are scrambling to get so many scenarios covered, and an endless number of variations on the group-shot (“and now, can we get one with uncle Joe?”, “Now one with just the Bride’s Family” “Now one with the Groom’s Family, Aunt Betty and her pet Aardvark”.

    On top of all of this, if you work for yourself, you actually spend about 30% of your time actually shooting – you spend the majority of your time running a business (marketing, networking, editing, fulfilling orders, writing proposals, etc. etc.)

    Being a pro is often about loving what you do, and making the best of what the work is. Whatever part of the industry you are in, there will be a LOT of boring assignments. The trick is to finding ways to make those enjoyable.

    We are at our most creative when we have the restrictions placed upon us, because we have to work harder for a great result.

    You will always have boundaries to making creative work if you are doing it to pay the bills. But growth comes working hard to take the boring assignment and returning with a great image.

  • Sky

    You are being very, very generous with that 30%, even if we forget for a moment that you skipped the part of work that’s post-processing and developing, which takes more time than being in a field.

  • bob cooley

    I counted that as fulfilling orders. :) 30% was about what my assignment-based shooting average was add another 10% for portfolio development – the other 60% was always running the business.

  • Gary O’Brien

    Great column, Melissa. I think you nailed what ails so many young photographers. I remember well going through what you describe, and your strategies for coping are spot on.