Over the past 8 years, I have conducted well over two hundred interviews with photographers on my show, The Candid Frame. These conversations have featured well-known master photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, Sam Abell and Greg Gorman. Other conversations have featured lesser known names, but whose work was no less exceptional such as Penny De Los Santos, Rinzi Ruiz and Jerod Foster.
These in-depth conversations have taught me a lot of things about photography, but it’s also demonstrated what it takes to be a successful photographer. And by success, I don’t just mean achieving financial security or fame, but rather creating bodies of work that are exceptional and express a unique vision and point of view. Here are ten things I feel I’ve learned most from my many conversations.
1. Just Do the Work
Make new work now. Don’t wait for inspiration. Don’t wait for the weekend or that next vacation. Don’t wait until you get that next camera. It’s the work that keeps you inspired. It’s the work that allows you to grow and learn. It’s the work that will provide you your style and your voice. Thinking about it gives you nothing more than the pleasure of fantasizing. Photographers make photographs.
2. Be Consistent
The photographers who exhibit the greatest growth and progress are those who are consistently producing photographs. Whether they are professional or amateurs, these photographers make image-making a regular practice. Each day or week, they have goals for their photography and they meet them. Despite the other demands on their lives, they make photography a normal part of their lives, like eating, going to work and sleeping. Photography is not an option. It’s a necessity.
3. Take Risks
Risk, the possibility of failure, is not something that’s avoided by exceptional photographers. They welcome it, because they recognize that there is something to be learned by courting the possibility of failure. They are not satisfied to merely make the same good image over and over again. They are looking for something that pushes them past their own comfort zone or their own self-imposed limitation. It can and often does result in wonderful, creative surprises.
4. Equipment is a Tool, Not a Goal.
Photographers have a passion for equipment. They will often talk about the look and feel of a camera as much as they do the quality of the images it produces. However, great photographers know that the gear is only a means to an end. Their choice of camera, lens, software has to facilitate their vision, their photographs. It’s not the camera that ends up hanging on a gallery wall or gets printed in the book, it’s the photograph. Eventually, the equipment becomes invisible and only exists to serve the image.
5. Education Alone Won’t Cut It.
There are more ways to learn photography than ever before. As well as traditional books and magazines, we have DVDs, YouTube, online and in-person workshops, mentorships and so much more. You can easily learn the basic fundamentals of exposure to complex lighting setups using multiple speedlights. It’s often just a few keystrokes away. But it means little if you aren’t applying what you’ve learned. If you are spending more time learning about equipment and gear than you are shooting, you are in the world of diminishing returns. You have to practice these techniques and methods and find a way to make them your own. That’s only going to happen by getting out of the house and making images.
6. Choose Your Relationships Carefully
The internet has made it easy to “friend” anyone who shares your passion for photography. However, it’s the choice of who you befriend and share your work with that make the difference. Great photographers often interact with people who inspire them, even people who create work that they consider better than theirs. They want relationships that will lead them to challenges themselves, to take risks and to discover choices that they might not have ever considered on their own.
7. Keep Your Promises to Yourself
We as people will usually make every effort to keep the promises that we’ve made to others. Yet, we are terrible when it comes to the promises we make to ourselves. Whether it’s getting out the gym to take better care of our health or that promise to finally build that website or portfolio, we often let ourselves down. Successful photographers keep these self-promises, because they know that the only person really standing in their way is themselves.
8. Be a Problem Solver
Not knowing how to do something is not an excuse to give up. When they encounter an obstacle, these people don’t shrug their shoulders and walk away. They instead look for a solution that will allow them to continue making progress. Whether it’s asking for help or even learning from repeated failures, they recognize that problems are to be expected. They understand that facing such obstacles are an indication that they are doing something right, that they are exploring new territory.
9. Expect Rejection
Not everyone is going to love what you do. They may not even understand it. But regardless of such negative reactions or even indifference, these photographers continue to put their work out there. They submit images to contests. They submit work to magazines and book publishers. They present their portfolios to art buyers and editors. They are looking for the people who do get what they do and who will become as passionate about it as they are. Each time they get out there and share their work means that they are one person closer to finding someone who gets it and loves it.
10. Go the Distance
These photographers are in for the marathon and not the sprint.. Ultimately, they know that every success and every failure is about the work. It comes down to creating the opportunities to practice what they love and what they’re good at. Getting the book published, getting the solo exhibit or being awarded the fellowship are just markers on the road that they are traveling. Success is more than just those individual achievements. Success is instead measured by every time he/she is able to raise the camera to their eye and make a photograph.