Being a professional photographer is often a flashy “seemingly easy” career in which anyone with a camera and a lens can succeed. But why then do so many fail? Having talked to many successful photographers, I’ve noticed certain patterns that they all share.
What does it take to be a photographer? Well, there isn’t a definitive answer, algorithm, or formula. I suppose that both the joy and pain of being an artist come from the profession being so unpredictable. Besides, where is the fun in just copying someone?
Sure, Richard Avedon was a great photographer, and you can go and copy his work all you want, but the world doesn’t need a second Avedon. So, if you clearly can’t copy someone’s career, why bother looking at past photography altogether? Well, because there is still a lot to learn from how those photographers approached creativity, how they conducted business, and how they remained relevant.
Being a photographer is certainly not for everyone. It is a very fun job and can even feel like a paid hobby to some, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s nothing but smooth sailing.
Before going further, this article isn’t meant to discourage you. While I do believe that anyone can create their lives in any way they want, if they want to be a photographer, it requires certain hard skills. Much of the information in this article is based on my interviews with photographers such as Platon, Albert Watson, Rankin, and Andrea Belluso.
#1. Blaming Other People for Your Own Failures
Excuses, excuses, excuses. Aren’t there just a million excuses to not be creative or to not progress? One of the things I notice with a lot of photographers is that they moan about not having something, be it a lens, light, or business skills. “So and so has connections” and “So and so has rich parents” are both quite common excuses that photographers give to justify shooting smaller jobs or not progressing.
I’ve noticed that instead of blaming other people for their own failures, successful photographers try to improve themselves. That starts by changing “I can’t” into “How can I?” I doubt that many photographers are born with their whole network lined up. No one starts off with being a successful photographer. It’s a slog, and successful photographers figure out what separates them from the “better” photographers, and go and work on it. Don’t blame your failures on other people, figure out what you need to work on and crack on. Stop moaning and crying.
#2. Inability To Change and Adapt
Somehow, from what I have observed, this one mostly applies to men. The photography industry is always changing. Let’s take media. Print magazines are no longer a great way to make money. I’ll lose it if someone says to me, “Back in the 80s it used to be so and so, and photographers made so much more money from magazines”. It’s not the 80s anymore, that’s a bygone era.
Every successful photographer has embraced digital, they are not refusing the change. Sure, film is preferred by some, but if need be they can work with digital. Rankin goes as far as suggesting that photographers should know all media. That’s why photographers should learn video now. Instagram has become a video platform, so go with the change and shoot video.
There are countless examples of big companies (Kodak, cough cough) that went under because they refused to change. Don’t be like Kodak.
#3. Being Too Proud
Again, mostly applies to men. A lot of photographers like to “flex” their photography muscles, whether by using some mad lighting setup or just by getting the most expensive cameras and lenses. In one way or another, showing off is part of some photographer’s life.
While there is nothing wrong with being proud of your work, there is a fine line between showing off and pride. According to Platon, the more humble you are, the better. Creativity is a mindset, that mindset consists of humility, optimism, and curiosity.
A swift transition from humility, curiosity is something that every successful photographer has. Being curious about the world around you will lead to seeing inspiration everywhere. That’s why Platon and Albert Watson rarely look at other photography. Watson goes as far as admitting he doesn’t talk to other photographers.
This is an interesting point of view because photographers tend to rarely look beyond their own industry which makes their work feel boring. However, if you are curious enough to look beyond, perhaps at visual art or sculpture, you will end up getting something fresh, and once applied to your work, your work will also become fresh.
#5. Not Doing Enough Relevant Work
No one said that photography is a career that’s relaxed. You need to be actively searching for work, marketing, creating new images and so much more. I say relevant work because some just get in the office and do useless tasks that don’t bring the career forward. Knowing the why behind most of your actions, and behind all of your business decisions is critical if you want to advance.
Here’s an example: I’d love to make an emotional purchase and buy a Phase One camera, but I won’t do it because owning one won’t make me more money. Another example would be spending ages designing a business card – just make sure it looks acceptable. Don’t reinvent the wheel, crack on with work that matters.
#6. Not Learning Light
One thing I always tell photographers is that you have to learn light. Albert Watson, who has photographed the likes of Kate Moss and Steve Jobs, suggests buying a used strobe and spending ten 12-hour days practicing lighting with just 1 light.
I’d add to that: wake up at 6 AM if need you to, and go to bed at 1 AM if you need to.
While this isn’t hustling, it is hard work. I wouldn’t glamourize photography, the romantic idea of an artist simply creating art and nothing else doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s a daily grind. Sure, it can become a “paid hobby”, but it’s also a proper grind before you get to the “paid hobby” stage.
To close, I’d like to say that your photographic career is what you make of it. Anyone can be a photographer since the definition of the word photographer is as vague as the art itself. That said, I strongly suggest finding curiosity, humility, bravery, and so much more within yourself.
Image credits: Header photo licensed from Depositphotos