A brief look back at just some of the many ways my own mind has played tricks on me along my journey from hobbyist to working professional.
I’ve been a professional photographer now for over 15 years. A lot of frames have developed and hair has disappeared in the meantime. While I very quickly started making money with my new hobby, in the beginning, turning it into a profitable career was, and still continues to be, an endless journey of discovery. A process of thinking you have it all figured out, only to have your assumptions shattered one by one along the way.
The actual list of every single thing I’ve learned from my first assignment to the most recent one would consume an internet worth of digital ink. But here are just a few bits of wisdom I’ve learned on the road, then forgotten, then relearned, then forgotten again. Hopefully, for those of you who wish to make this more than a hobby, these lessons might help you as well. So, without further ado, here are three things I told myself starting out that have turned out to be absolute hogwash.
Many of the items on this list you may have heard before. That’s because older photographers like myself will likely have screamed one of these adages at you on multiple occasions. You may have taken the advice, then quickly forgotten it, or perhaps you’ve dismissed it outright.
Not that it wouldn’t be hard to blame you. I was a professional photographer for a long time before I started writing for Fstoppers. Honestly, I never gave my original choice of Nikon much thought. I was building a career as a photographer. So, I would need a camera. I had a Nikon. Cool, check that one off the list.
But since I’ve been writing for a photography site, it has become painfully obvious just how much people allow their choice of camera brand and the perceived value of the technology in their hand to get confused with their value as a photographer or ultimately as a human being. If you don’t shoot mirrorless, you suck as a photographer. You can’t possibly be a professional photographer if your camera doesn’t have two card slots. Only a Luddite would shoot with anything other than Sony. Sure, the Canon R5 sounds great, but it overheats. So clearly, if you preorder one, you are a certified fool. Nikon? That’s old news. There’s no way a 100-year-old company can rebound from three or four years of poor sales.
Obviously, every one of the above statements is absolutely ridiculous. But the vigor with which comment sections light up with opinions like that, in a world where internet chatter is a major driver in our belief systems, is plentiful enough to convince a photographer just starting out that clients make their hiring decisions based on what camera you own as opposed to what you can actually do with it.
Having been fortunate enough to have shot everything from editorials to national ad campaigns, I can confirm that clients couldn’t care less if you shoot their job with a sewing machine just so long as you are able to deliver the assets they need. Sure, certain jobs may require X amount of resolution based on the final deliverable. Sure, maybe a specific job might be better suited for one camera system versus another. I’m not saying there is no difference between different camera models. I’m only saying that this whole arms race to declare your professionalism through the logo engraved on your camera body is entirely a figment of your imagination.
In fact, in all the jobs that I’ve ever shot, the absolute biggest included, not once has a client asked me what brand of camera I would be shooting with. There have been jobs that have required 4K, for example. There are jobs that I shoot medium format as opposed to full-frame because that is the expectation for that particular job. But, by the time your career is at a point where you need to worry about things like that, you will likely have discovered that if your clients don’t believe you to be professional enough to know what tool to pick for their job, it’s unlikely they’d be trusting you with the project in the first place.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get excited about your camera. I’m not saying you shouldn’t fall in love with a specific brand. I think the relationship between a photographer and a specific camera brand is something of a love affair. The connection isn’t something that can be explained in words. Sometimes, certain cameras just fit certain photographers.
But I will say that if you are depending on having a specific camera in order to make you a professional photographer, you likely have far more pressing creative concerns to iron out first before worrying about what internet buzz exists about a new release.
I’ll state this early for those out there who don’t read past the headline. Talent does matter. You absolutely have to be at the top of your game artistically if you want to build a career as a professional photographer.
But what you will quickly learn once you are in the business for a while is that the world is absolutely full of amazing photographers. No matter how good you are, it’s highly likely that there is a simply incomprehensible number of other photographers out there who will be just as good, if not significantly better than you. That’s not a personal attack on you. I’ve never even seen your work. But the world’s population is expected to reach 8 billion souls by 2023. Thinking you are the absolute best human being to ever pick up a camera just because you’ve mastered the exposure triangle might be a bit premature. Even if you’re saying to yourself “hey, I’ve been to So And So’s website and looked over their portfolio. Their work isn’t all that,” hold your horses. There’s a good chance that you’re not seeing the whole picture.
I remember one of the most impactful lessons I learned along the way was when I got a chance to visit the studio of a well-established fashion film duo here in Los Angeles. Their work is amazing. Full of color. Very defined style. They shoot for some of the top brands and publications in the world. I had run into them after they gave a presentation at The Annenberg Space for Photography. I stopped by after the show to tell them how much I admired their work and to ask if I could come by their studio sometime for a chat.
They graciously obliged, and a few weeks later, I was at their space in Echo Park for a quick sit down. I showed them some of my work at the time. They showed me some of theirs. What I was most struck by wasn’t the beauty of their more famous images, but rather how amazingly awesome some of their lesser-known work turned out to be. This duo, known for bright poppy colors in their commercial fashion work, also had work that wasn’t public-facing that was shot in dramatic black and white or was intricate sports images and everything in between. And they were pretty much good at all of it.
Smartly, they had defined their colorful visual aesthetic as a way to stand out in the marketplace. More on that in a second. But I had made the mistake of confusing branding with them not being able to shoot in a different style. It turns out their rejects were better than most photographers’ best work. Having come into orbit with many of the best-known photographers in the world over the years, it has become clear that this is the case for most of them. What they are known for is often just the tip of the iceberg. The one series they shot that you may have deemed awful and proof of your own superiority as a photographer is likely just a minuscule percentage of what they have to offer clients.
Having talent as a photographer is extremely important. But being talented and extremely accomplished is more or less just the baseline. It is an incredibly competitive field. Being insanely good technically is simply an assumption. What separates those talented photographers who can sustain a career from those who might be just as good technically but don’t work as professionals comes down to the things you do without a camera in your hand.
How is your marketing? How good are you at establishing your brand identity? You can take a picture, but do you know anything about business plans, balance sheets, and cost/revenue analysis? Being talented is a positive first step. Developing that talent into mastery is a required second step. But, if you want to take all that talent and hard work and build a sustainable career, you need to put just as much effort into running your business as you do into lighting a scene.
One of the most important ways to differentiate yourself from the competition is to firmly grasp what your skills actually are and how those translate to the market. Again, no matter how good you may be, it is a near certainty that you are stronger in some areas than others. The natural human urge when just starting out is to try and see what is selling in the market place and then tailor your product to meet that demand. It’s not illogical. A lot of tractors are sold that way. But photography is not a tractor. Photography is an art form. A subjective art form.
When I was in college, studying business, my professor lectured one day on the difference between fixed goods and variable goods. Fixed goods are things like a pair of sneakers. When you go to Foot Locker and you spend $100 on a pair of Nike shoes, you know exactly what you are getting before you ever enter the store. You know the size. You know the materials. No matter where you buy your sneakers or who you buy them from, the product is still the same. If you are a frequent Nike buyer, you can probably guess exactly how they are going to feel when you put them on your feet without even bothering to try them on.
A barber, on the other hand, provides a variable product. Even if you go to the same barber every week and ask for the Number 5, every single haircut you get is going to be slightly different. Perhaps the barber is in a rush that day. Perhaps he was distracted. Or, maybe he had no other customers, so he spent an extra-long time perfecting your hairdo. Whatever the reason, even though you still have some concept of what you are paying for, the actual product itself will still vary on an individual basis.
Photography is a variable good. When a client hires you based on your portfolio, they are more than likely not hiring you to recreate an exact shot in your portfolio with the same model, same wardrobe, same lighting ratio, and same exact location. Instead, they are saying: “We like the way this photographer shoots; we’d like him or her to interpret our brand through that perspective.” They aren’t just hiring you to push buttons. They are hiring you for your unique voice.
Despite this, many, if not most photographers begin their careers by trying to emulate the style of other more established photographers. I know I did it. When I was just getting started, an image was never good unless it looked like something Annie Leibovitz shot. I never actually hit that mark. No one can. No one can shoot like Annie Leibovitz except for Annie Leibovitz. You can try it. You can do a pale imitation. You can even copy her lighting diagrams step by step. But you’ll never out-Annie Annie. Not because you aren’t good. But because that is her unique voice. You have your own as well. Use it.
It’s tempting to think that by emulating someone else’s style that you will get the same clients. But, if a client wants Annie’s look, they will just hire Annie in the first place. But “what if they can’t afford her,” you might be thinking. So, are you saying you want to build a career on being a discount version of a great photographer? And what happens when another photographer comes along and tries to be a discount Annie as well? Neither of you is selling based on your unique perspective. You’re just selling on who can be more of a discount. How is that a way to sustain a business?
You want to differentiate yourself by leaning into those skills that you uniquely bring to the table. They may not be the same as your photographic idols, but they are still just as significant. Admittedly, it takes years of searching before most photographers will be able to clearly identify their aesthetic. And even then, your style will be constantly evolving. That’s all part of the journey. But if you want your journey to be more like a marathon and less like 15 minutes of fame, finding out how to establish your own photographic identity is an absolute essential.