Last week, Atlanta-based music photographer and noted blogger Zack Arias posted a partly sobering and partially hilarious blog post that has received a great deal of attention (all of Zack’s posts should receive a great deal of attention). Zack described a moment of apprehension and anxiety similar to those that we all deal with as small business people, that moment when a day job sounds like a good idea and the stresses of running our own businesses can really creep up on us. Thankfully, Zack also made it very clear that he had no intention of leaving photography and that this was merely a momentary reaction to stress. We all have that little voice somewhere in the back of our head that wants to undermine our desires and prevent us from taking chances. That unevolved chunk of animal brain cells that craves survival and an absence of risks is always telling us to play it safe. We need to make a conscious effort to stifle this ingrained self-sabotage impulse and push ourselves to be more than a mere creature concerned with nothing besides its immediate survival. The second and more entertaining part of Zack’s post was a rather comical but poignant rant about the abject pointlessness of generic “Top Ten Ways to Become a Pro Photographer” lists. Zack’s primary complaint, and agreeably so, is that these lists tend to offer advice that is so below the “should not need to be said” as to be insulting and useless. Tips like “breath”, “get a portfolio” and “think about getting some business cards” don’t really provide any benefit and are, as Zack says, an exercise in making more noise than signal.
It is true that some things do go without saying. Sadly, it is also true that some thing should go without saying. These lists of very obvious and very trite suggestions on how to better your career leave a lot to be desired in terms of usable content, but what about a list of common behaviors that can hurt you? It goes without saying that these ideas are just as basic and simple as their counterparts that angered Zack Arias so much last week, and they too should go without saying, but sadly these patterns of behavior are still exhibited by so many that they call for their own top ten list.
10. Fear Technology, Dread Change
“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” -Stewart Brand
The ongoing evolution of technology is a constant. In fact, the rate at which technology advances is ever quickening in pace. Ray Kurzweil’s predicated technological singularity becomes more and more of a certainty with every year that goes by and every oncoming advancement of technology. Despite the saturation of technology that betters both our personal and creative lives, there are still those resistant to any type of change, warily viewing new ideas and technologies as possible threats, or outright defaming them as a cancerous blight on the industry and their old guard view of what they perceive the industry “should” be. When digital photography started to gain widespread popularity there was a division between the camps that embraced it and those who decried it as the downfall of the photographic industry, a debate that almost seems absurd now, as even those who still choose to shoot film do so as an aesthetic choice, and with an intelligent understanding of digital technology. Later, the rise of digital distribution and social media made waves with photographers to whom these concepts were foreign and frightening, while for others it was a beneficial new catalyst to creating interaction. There is no room for the reactionary Luddite in this technological world. New ideas and technologies, even if ultimately rejected, should still be examined and their beneficial content acknowledged or reworked into a form that better serves your needs. But an outright fear of change is becoming such a handicap as to be a major detriment to the industry that these purists claim to defend. Ultimately, technology is a tool, and we should be leveraging and implementing these tools to the best of our abilities. Not everyone needs to be an early adopter, but we need to let go of these fears and embrace the fact that new technology is beneficial.
9. Don’t Edit Your Work
“There is but one art, to omit.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson
Too often I have seen artists whose portfolios sadly contain page after page of filler or suffer from Flickr syndrome, that is, ten pages showing every single frame from a single production. The art of editing is one that has somewhat suffered from the digital revolution. The changes brought about by the digital era have led to a changing view of quantity vs content. Because we are generally no longer working with physical or cost constraints there is a tendency to over publish. 12-36 frames on a roll of film has leapt up to 32 GB memory cards that can hold hundreds of images, the physical restrictions, and page counts of a traditional book have been replaced by websites with nearly unlimited abilities to store and display images. These technological capabilities, when taken on their own merit, are nothing short of awesome and revolutionary when held against the limitations of the past. But it all comes back to the old adage “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Yes, the ability to show every frame from your latest shoot is a technological marvel, but it is the ability to hone in on that one perfect frame that perfectly expresses the story you are trying to tell or the concept you are trying to illustrate that can set you apart from all the noise out there. Showing too much work dilutes your message, especially when that work does not support your vision or stand up to the rest of your book. The need to overpopulate your portfolio shows a lack of confidence in your own work. In the world of literature there are three-line haiku’s that have just as much profound insight and validity as a novel or epic poem, a book is not better just because it has more pages. Always strive to show amazing work, not impress people with your page count.
8. Only Make Images for Other People
“We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves to be like other people.” -Arthur Schopenhauer
How can you enjoy your successes if you don’t enjoy what you do? Success can be measured in more than just dollar signs, so never let go of the passions that drove you to become a photographer (or any other discipline of creative, for that matter) in the first place. Make sure that you always bring something of yourself to your work. Care about what you create, feed your passion into it, show your drive to excel, prove your unique vision, and make yourself an integral part of what you make. If your main niche of photography lacks a lot of creative involvement then go out and shoot personal work for yourself. Photography is a difficult career path to choose. The ones that excel are the ones with the love and desire to do this so badly that even when it seems impossible they keep moving forward and loving the act of creating images. They keep growing and learning and getting better at what they do because they care so much. If you lose your love of what you do, what you are left with is just a job you hate, and I can think of better paying jobs to hate than photography. If you don’t like the types of assignments you are getting from clients then go and shoot a new body of work for yourself, work that showcases your interests and talents, work that you can show to prospective clients to start getting the type of assignments you want to be doing.
7. Put More Importance On Your Gear Than Your Work
“A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop. ” -Robert Hughes
If I have to read one more forum exchange on why Canon is better than Nikon or see another discussion about a great emotionally charged image where the first question is “what camera was this shot with? What f/stop was this shot at?” I will be forced to scream until my vocal cords go on strike. We cannot afford to be mere technicians. The knowledge and ability to become a great technical photographer is easily accessible to anyone willing to put in the effort to learn it. When you reduce a creative endeavor to a purely technical exercise you remove all the magic and emotion from it. Technique is important but often needs to be secondary to the intangibles of photography. Those personal creative choices that we make within each image are what makes our work stand out, these unique visions and opinions are what sets us apart from other photographers. Our creative abilities and outlooks are the true value we bring to our clients, more than being able to produce a technically perfect, but lifeless, image.
6. Play the Victim
“Self-pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality.” -John W. Gardner
Nothing can rob you of momentum worse than wallowing in self-pity. I have seen photographers despairing about the state of their business and making poorly thought-out decisions based on depression with a sort of masochistic enthusiasm reminiscent of a junkie craving their next fix. I speak with people from all creative fields who seal their fate before they even try to realize it. The logic of this baffles me sometimes. I have seen photographers who won’t market their work because they are sure buyers won’t like it. I have seen people afraid to make cold calls because they are banking on rejection. I have seen creatives slash their rates to poverty levels before a potential client had even responded to the initial quote out of fear of rejection. These same creatives are the first ones to start complaining about the industry, clients, or the work of others. The fact is, being negative is easy, and addictive. Sour grapes is a bitter taste, but one that some people seem to love. Do not rob yourself of opportunities through inaction. People may very well say no to you, but if you don’t ask I can guarantee they will never say yes.
5. Don’t Share, Don’t Learn
“Talent is always conscious of its own abundance, and does not object to sharing.” -Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Chase Jarvis recently related a story during his recent Photo Expo keynote address that during his early career he developed a policy of transparency in which he began to share his creative and technical methods with others. Several of the more established photographers in his Seattle market took a great deal of offense to him sharing this type of info with amateurs, beginners, and outsiders. Some were so bothered by this act of openness and sharing that they went so far as to physically threaten Chase. We are a community of creatives. By sharing and learning from each other we enrich the industry as a whole, increase the level of discourse about photography and business, and all benefit as a result. We are not magicians revealing a trick to outsiders. We are professionals and artists who are bettering the industry and quality of work overall by sharing information and by pushing and encouraging each other to be the absolute best that we can be. If you have such an issue with possible competition or your work relies on a single technique or trick, then you need to desperately re-examine your business plan and creative philosophy. Competition can be one of the most positive factors in pushing you to improve as an artist and person. It is a healthy influence that can stop you from stagnating or becoming lazy.
4. Undervalue Yourself
“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” -Oscar Wilde
Once again, the ugly beast of self-doubt makes itself known. It seems to me that one of the major issues plaguing this industry is the chronic behavior of photographers undervaluing their own work. Too many times I have had conversations with other photographers in which they described taking a job at a rate in which they actually lost money on under the justifications of “I need to work” and “You wouldn’t understand, I have to put food on the table”. This type of behavior is so detrimental and toxic, not just to the industry, but on a personal level. How can you expect your clients to place value on your work when you cannot even bring yourself to do so? Demonstrate the value that your creativity brings to others beyond bottom-line price. Your insight, vision, energy, quality of work, and ability to deliver consistently great images are all values that make you more than just a number on an invoice.
3. Neglect the Business Side
“To open a shop is easy, to keep it open is an art” – Chinese Proverb
Take a business course, join the ASMP or similar organization, or find a business mentor. I cannot stress enough that we are involved in a creative business. We must be equal parts artist and entrepreneur in this era. The only way to make sure that we can maintain the ability to keep creating work at a professional level and support ourselves is to be as well versed in the tactics of business as we are behind a camera. Learning how to deal with the basics of negotiation, insurance, managing expenses and taxes, billing, contracts, and protecting your intellectual property can be daunting, but is absolutely vital to your success as a creative professional. This is one area where having a skilled support team in the form of a knowledgeable lawyer and accountant on your side can help, but there are several aspects of business that you must learn to handle on your own as a small business person. For every photography blog you read you should be reading a business one as well.
2. Stop Growing
“Change and growth take place when a person has risked himself and dares to become involved with experimenting with his own life.” -Herbert A. Otto
Creativity relies on growth. If we stagnate our work will stop evolving and we will begin to lose our passion for what we do. Can you imagine anything more boring than going though life on autopilot? Don’t allow the safety of the status quo to lull you sleep. Make it a rule to learn something new every week and push yourself to take on personal assignments that make you uncomfortable, push youself outside of the box of your day-to-day routine. Travel, eat food that grossed you out as a kid. watch films with subtitles, and always be creating something new. When we stop growing we lose so much of ourselves to apathy and become rigid, resist change, fear the future, and we become bitter about our pasts. Change rejuvenates us and provides new opportunities. It keeps us sharp, and it keeps us from being average.
1. Be An Asshole
“A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person” -Dave Barry
Seriously, don’t be an asshole, even if your work is top-notch. People want to work with people that they like working with. If you make life miserable for everyone around you, no one will want to be around you. This is a lesson that transcends photography. This is a life lesson. Help others, share information, make the world better, and create. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be a rotten prick either.