It has recently come to my attention that exactly 10 years ago, almost to the date, I took my very first step into the world of photography. I was fresh out of high school when I got conscripted to the army and later served as a military photographer. Whether it was to my liking or not, this is how I was set on this long path which has, since then, flourished and developed my passion for photography into my current career as a traveling, cultural and documentary photographer.
This path has led me further than I ever expected as I learned a great deal about myself not only as a person but also as a photographer. Probably the most important thing I picked up early on was the desire to share the knowledge of the cultures I visited, the stories I heard and the photographic experiences I gathered. Therefore, I find it only fitting to commemorate this 10 year anniversary by sharing with you my list of top 10 pieces of advice I wish I knew 10 years ago when I first started.
#1. Build a website with a purpose
Whether you are an aspiring or a full-time photographer, it is most likely that at a certain point in time you will be interested in building your own website, a professional platform from which you could share your work as a photographer. Before you purchase a template or hire a designer to build you a website, stop. First, you should sit down and spend the time to define exactly what you are trying to accomplish through having your own platform.
If your sole aim is to have an online portfolio, the existing social media platforms already do a pretty good job at it (and for free!). So, if you do decide to invest the time and/or money on building your own website, try to make sure you get more out of it than just another form of an online photo gallery.
#2. Buy one good camera and forget about gear (for at least a few years)
While I don’t wish to recommend a specific camera, here is how I would recommend you to go about it; Don’t buy a camera that suits your current skill set as a photographer. Instead, invest in a camera that will suit the skill sets you are hoping to inquire in a few years time… Let me explain.
While it might be too advanced, buying this kind of camera will allow you to primarily focus on growing as a photographer. Not wasting time revisiting the camera market every year, looking for a slightly better camera to match your new skills as a photographer. Speaking out of my own work, although I did recently upgrade to a new camera system, my previous camera has served me for almost 8 years! I used it throughout most of my military service and during all of my photography projects leading up to my last trip to Ethiopia.
And that’s all I’ll say about cameras and gear on this list.
#3. Work on a long term project
While the status of an individual image has its respectable place in many portfolios, when you look at the media today, the images that end up receiving the most exposure and recognition tend to be the product of long term photography projects. So I highly recommend you start working on your own photography project right now
And don’t worry, no one is asking you to fly halfway across the world for it — you can start small. All you need to do is to simply choose a subject that truly interests you and using your camera, go ahead and explore it! I can guarantee that working on your own photo projects, will not only improve you significantly as a photographer but the process itself will be one of the most rewarding photographic experiences you’ve ever had.
#4. Learn from the old masters
When I first started learning about photography, I felt like there was not much to learn from photographers of the past. I thought that their ‘old school’ black and white style of photography had little relevance in today’s highly competitive market. But I could not have been more wrong!
As a good friend of mine once told me; “It’s funny how young photographers today think they reinvented the wheel while some of these ‘old masters’ did similar photographs even better almost 50 years ago!”. While there are some amazing photographers out there today, if you truly wish to get a deeper understanding of photography, I highly recommend you to invest some of your time exploring the work of these ‘old masters’ — photographers whose images shaped the world of photography into what it is today.
You can start by checking out some of my personal favorites like Gordon Parks, Sebastião Salgado, and Fan Ho — they’re pretty amazing! And, if you want more recommendations, check this video I made a while back:
#5. Do more than just photography
One of the greatest lessons I learned as I became a full-time photographer was that, in order to flourish in today’s competitive market, photographers need to be able to offer more than just their ability to make intriguing photographs.
As a photographer, you should be able to offer a diverse range of ‘products’. For example, while I make my living mostly through doing my own photography projects, I also offer ‘products’ like lectures, photography workshops, selling prints and even tour guiding photography expeditions in different areas of the world.
#6. Pick a lane
If you have just started exploring the art of photography, I always recommend trying out as many different sides of it as you can. But, once you’ve experimented with a few of them, you should try to figure out which style of photography fascinates you the most and stick to it for a while.
If you wish to improve as a photographer, it will be way more productive for you to specialize and focus your efforts on mastering a specific field of photography, pushing yourself to acquire a deeper understanding of that side of the art. If you aspire to become a better photographer, you should be very careful not to turn into someone whose work can be described as a “Jack of all but Ace of none”.
#7. Don’t wait for the train of opportunities
Many photographers love the idea of being hired by high-end magazines, being sent halfway across the world to work on amazing photo-assignments. But if you’re planning to just sit and wait for a magazine to approach you, I’m afraid you’re going to be waiting a long time because that train will not be coming. This is not to say that magazines don’t hire photographers, they do, but because of the way this market operates today, it is ridiculously rare.
If you wish to see your work published in the media, you’re way better off producing your own photography work. In fact, making your own photography projects is the ‘back door’ into getting published. Your future projects are something that potentially can be licensed by magazines in the future. See why I said you should start working on photography projects instead?
#8. Good story > Cool images
The way I see it, photography is best described as the art of creating visuals. Your job as a photographer is not to go looking for ‘cool photographs’ but for unique characters with interesting stories worth telling. Only then, using your photographic skills, you try to figure out what are the best images that visualize and bring that story to life.
As a rule of thumb, when it comes to getting viewers interested in your photographic work, even a slightly out of focus simple image but presents a truly authentic and interesting story will often generate greater interest and attention with your audience when compared to a technically perfect image with no story behind it.
#9. Photography is more than ‘Classic Portraits’
Some of the most iconic, influential and powerful images in history were portraits. But the honest truth is that making a classic portrait of a person can be an “easy solution’ or ‘quick fix” for a cool looking photograph, especially if you are in an exotic part of the world. But if you mainly focus on making these kinds of ‘classic portraits’ then you will end up damaging one of the most important features of a successful photographer portfolio: diversity.
If you are screaming at the screen: “But I like making portraits!” don’t worry – that is absolutely fine, I like them too.
But when you are working on building your portfolio, on top of making cool portraits, try to challenge yourself to explore a more diverse range of possible framings. It will improve your portfolio immensely and will result in simply stronger images.
#10. You got into photography for a reason — don’t lose it
This is probably the most important advice on this list, so pay attention!
Whether we are aware of it or not we all got into photography for a reason. This ranges between using photography as an art form to help us say something we couldn’t otherwise or simply enjoying it as a hobby and a new way to look at the world. But, whatever your reason to get into photography may be, as you dive deeper into this art try your best not to lose track of it.
I have seen far too many photographers turn into what I call ‘technicians’, constantly occupied in the pursuit of perfecting the technical aspects of their photography, to a point in which they completely lose sight of the original reason why they got into photography in the first place. At the end of the day, whether it is your occupation or hobby, photography should make you happy. Don’t forget that.
I truly hope this list was helpful for you and will help you grow as a photographer!
About the author: Asher Svidensky is a freelance photographer specializing in art and documentary photography with a strong passion for mixing the two with storytelling. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Svidensky’s work has been published by international outlets including the BBC, National Geographic, The Guardian, and many more. You can find more of Svidensky’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.