The Photographers You Idolize Are No Better Than You

The Photographers You Idolize Are No Better Than You

We look up to other people in all aspects of our lives. Most of us admire our parents or an older sibling. We desire to be like those who have "made it" like actors, musicians, or wealthy business owners. As photographers, we probably all have a list of our favorite people in the industry. I'm here to tell you that they are no better at photography than you are. has given me a very unique, inside look into the photography industry. I've had the rare opportunity to have met with and gotten to know a large number of my photography idols. I've been able to ask them the questions that they would never answer on camera, such as "How exactly did you book that job?" "How much did that campaign pay?" or "Are you making more money shooting or teaching at this point?" In many cases, my idols, the photographers who I always wanted to be like, are actually like me already, but in many cases they are just a few years ahead of me. The thing that all of my favorite photographers seem to have in common is that none of them think that they have "made it." Most of them are still constantly struggling to land that next big job or start that next big business idea. I assumed that once you reached "the top" you could relax but I've found that there is no "top". No matter how successful you become, you can always land more jobs, gain more sponsors or raise your rates. It's exciting to set a goal and then reach it but as soon as you do it's time to set another goal.

When I first got into photography my goal was to assist as many professionals as I could to become a well rounded photographer. I assisted commercial, portrait, wedding, food and architectural photographers. I learned a seemingly endless amount of information from each of them, but I was always shocked by how much each of them didn't know. I watched each deal with amateur problems like forgetting to lower their ISO from 3200 for a studio session or forgetting their cameras maximum sync speed and wondering why their flash wasn't showing up or not understanding crop vs full frame cameras or lenses. Many of these photographers didn't understand the basics of Photoshop.

I've also randomly met shooters who have assisted one or more of the most famous photographers alive today. After we've had a few drinks the stories begin to fly and are usually all pretty similar: "You know that million dollar campaign that ________ shot? Well I was there for that campaign and that photographer didn't know what the hell they were doing. Basically I had to come up with that lighting scheme myself." I've heard so many stories about some of the biggest photographers alive today not having a basic understanding of lighting, their camera or post production.

As I've learned all of the industry's dirty little secrets over the past few years it has both inspired and depressed me. It's inspiring to know that the photographers I've looked up to throughout my entire career are not that different from me. It's inspiring to know that even the best photographers in the world still struggle with some of the same things that I do. It's inspiring to know it actually is possible for me to reach their level. At the same time it's completely depressing to think about how much time I spend online learning every technical aspect of my camera equipment only to hear that the last giant fashion campaign was shot by someone who doesn't understand what ISO is.

The title of this article is "The Photographers You Idolize Are No Better Than You" and that is actually a lie. The Photographers you idolize may not know their camera better than you, but they are actually better than you and me both at a lot of other things that matter more.

Hugely successful photographers are master businessmen and women. If they aren't good with business, they hire someone who is. Most of these photographers have agents that can not only help them find jobs but also do all of the negotiating. If these photographers don't have a private agent they will have a manager on staff that deals with this aspect of their business. Underbidding a job in many cases is worse than overbidding and these photographers know exactly how to negotiate with each client/campaign.

Client Interaction and Perceived Value
I was once told a story about a famous NY photographer by his assistant. The photographer would set up 5-10 extra, unnecessary lights, for every photoshoot and then set them all to fire a fraction of a second late so that they wouldn't affect the actual picture. The set might have 10 lights set up but only 1 or 2 were actually affecting the image. The assistant heard one of the art directors say to another "look at this production, we would have never gotten this quality if we had hired the other guy."

Now this is a story is way over the top but perceived value is a very real thing. Why does a photographer need to shoot with a Hasselblad digital camera to shoot images for a web campaign? Why do you need a 10 million dollar studio to shoot products on seamless? You don't, but your clients appreciate it. I spoke to an art director at a large advertising agency and he told me that they liked to hire a specific photographer because that photographer spent a ton of the photography budget on everyone involved with the shoot. The photographer would hire a professional chef to show up and cook for agency reps. His studio was extremely nice and for the art director "it was so refreshing to get out of our crappy offices and go to his studio for a shoot."

Production Value
Production value is the biggest thing separating a good picture from a great one. Haven't you ever watched a behind the scenes video of a giant campaign photoshoot and thought "man, they are only using 1 light, I could totally do this." Well it's true you could, but most of us are to lazy to do it the right way. High end photographers think about making flawless images. You might have an amazing location and dress but if your model doesn't look professional then neither will your picture. Fashion photoshoots require 5 major components and most average photographers fall short in at least 1 of these areas. The model, lighting, location or set, outfit, and the post production must all be world class for the final picture to be world class. As I said above, many of the best photographers in the world are not very good at each of these things, but they realize their shortcomings and they hire a team to handle each aspect. The photographers work with modeling agencies to get the best talent available for every photoshoot. If the lighting is extremely complex many of these photographers have a team of lighting specialists that recreate the photographer's "vision." The photographer has a location scout or a set designer to find or build the perfect location for each picture. Hair, makeup and clothing stylists are brought in to make the models look as perfect as they possibly can. After the shoot it's very rare for these photographers to do the retouching themselves; they almost always have someone on staff or send their photos out for retouching.

The Unnamed Trait
If you want to become a big name photographer everything I've written above is extremely important, but I don't believe that any of those traits are THE most important. The most important trait is something that I don't think I can fully explain with a couple of words. This trait has nothing to do with photography specifically, it has everything to do with success in general. Successful people are "Do'ers." By that I mean successful people accomplish things. In many cases it doesn't even matter what they do, they just have to do something, anything, over and over again. "Talented" people take initiative to do, create, or start something. The average person doesn't actually do anything themselves; they go to work, they do what they are told, and then they come home and watch tv and get ready for the next day of work. Successful people see a problem and then fix it. They have an idea and they create something. Think about the people that you look up to in your life. You probably admire them because they have done something unique or different or they do something specific very well.

The average person is a talker. They claim to be smart, they claim to be talented and they claim to have great ideas. But they also always have an excuse about why they aren't doing anything. Don't you know a person that is always planning something big but their big ideas never turn out? Every time you talk to them they have given up on the last idea but this new idea is "it" and this time it's really going to work. You probably have very little respect for this person because each time someone promises you something and then can't deliver you lose a little bit of faith in them. It's always easier to "talk" than it is to "do." These same people are the ones that will sit back and look at other people who are doing things and talk bad about them or their projects. These are the people that love to visit websites like ours and attack the writers or the photographers in the articles for not doing a good enough job. The truth is, successful people don't have enough time to hate on other people because they are too busy doing things- like making money.

If there is one thing you take away from this article let it be this: stop talking and start doing. My world is filled with people with "great ideas" that they want me to be a part of. At this point I only want to be involved with people that have proven that they actually can accomplish their goals. Everyone has good ideas, that is not a unique talent. The talent lies in making your idea a reality.

When Patrick and I came up with idea for Fstoppers I tried to get other photographers in the area involved and nobody was interested. If the rolls were reversed I wouldn't have been either. Two wedding photographers had an idea for yet another photography website? We had no experience in web design or video production and we wanted to start a video based website? That's crazy. At the time we were just talkers like everyone else. Through a lot of hard work and luck, Fstoppers did turn into something and because of that one relatively small success, we can say with confidence that we had a pretty ambitious idea and we made something of it. The creation of this simple website has gained me access to the secret club of photographers that "do". Without Fstoppers I would have never been able to meet my idols.

Now you may be thinking, what in the world does this have to do with photography? It has everything to do with photography. No matter where you are in your photography career you need to be creating better images on a weekly basis. This does not mean that you need to take more images, it means you need to create better images. Do you talk about your next concept for a photograph or do you plan it out and shoot it within a few days and then move on to the next idea? When you do shoot for yourself how meticulous are you in regards to the final product? Are you involving the most talented models, stylists and retouchers available in your area? It may be difficult to get the most talented people in town to collaborate with you at the beginning but once you prove yourself, just like we did with Fstoppers, the talent will find you. I bet you have an idea for a single photo or a photography series or a behind the scenes video that you have been thinking about for literally years. Turn off your computer and your TV and actually do it. When you're done with it, enjoy the feeling of accomplishing a goal for a day and then move on to the next idea.

The photographers that I idolize may not be a better photographers than me, technically speaking, but they are far better than me in the areas that actually matter. I am still trying to figure out how to make the jump from average photographer up to the "top" but as I said before, I don't think there is a top. The road to success for 99% of people isn't a jump, it's a steady incline from one successful project to the next. You're not going to go directly from shooting girls on Model Mayhem to shooting a campaign for Prada but if you act like every one of your photoshoots is for Prada I have no doubt you will get there. The photographers that we all look up to had to start from the bottom just like us.

In my mind I am a very average wedding photographer so I am always shocked and flattered to hear that I have inspired someone else in some way. Three years ago, before Fstoppers, I was struggling to book my next job just like all of you and nobody knew who I was. Honestly I'm still struggling to book photography jobs today. I didn't think that Fstoppers would ever turn into what it is now. I simply had an idea and unlike all of my other failed ideas, this one actually worked. I did something and it paid off. I'm honestly no different than you, at best I'm just a few years ahead of you.

I hope that this article has inspired you. I hope you now realize that you are just as capable as anyone of "making it". But the truth is, I didn't really write it for you. I wrote this to myself because I am probably the laziest person I know. I needed to give myself a pep-talk for 2013. There are a lot of ideas that I need to make realities.

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Anthony Brinson's picture

I def needed to read this THANKS

Lee Morris's picture

I'm glad someone read it, I was fearful it was too long to attempt :)

Adam's picture

No, Lee. See, that's why this site worked. Because you and Patrick DID this. And now here you are again, doing it. Great piece.

It was hard work reading all of that, but it really hit home... thanks

Congratulations Lee! You and the team hit the ball out of the park with Fstoppers and this article is amazing. Going to pass it along to others. I too believe you summed it up - get out and get busy - don't wait for things to be perfect. I managed to stumble into that when I created planet5D - and it managed to save me when I was laid off from my day job. And I continue to be slammed for not knowing everything, but you know what? I'm out there and doing it and making a name for myself.

Jason Bennett's picture

It was I had my mac read it to me.  I guess that means you are the second laziest guy in the world.  LOL

Lupascu Alexandru's picture

your work and concepts are trully inspiring...i really admire what you acomplished 

 This is one of the best things I've read on Fstoppers in a long time.

Although I don't think I'll ever be able to wrap my head around thinking that the photographers I idolize are no better than me... I really idolize Steve McCurry, Sebastiao Salgado, David Alan Harvey, Joachim Ladefoged. Those guys are on a whole other level, I think.

This article is the reason that I started checking fstoppers on a daily basis.   What you guys have created is huge.  It is inspiring and ultimately that is what photography (as an art) is about.  This was not essentially a long read.  I feel like most people want the quick fix but please don't be discouraged if this goes over some people's heads.  The fact is, we need to invest more in ourselves.  Yes!!! "so and so has a hassy and does this"  or "this guy is a hack, he shoots with a point and shoot"  those are lessons that should inspire each of us to create images (or not create images) the way we feel best suited to.  The points that you have made are right on the money and need to be addressed by each photographer in their own way.  

I am and have been a "pro" for years.  But that just means that people pay me for my work... and there are a ton of average people that go to work everyday.  Pushing the limits and inspiring others is where it is.  That's why I do it at least.Thanks for writing. Thanks for inspiring.

 It is too long but it kept me interested so... good job ;)

I can't say enough good things about this article and this website. You are truly an inspiration to guys like myself who are young and want to move forward constantly. I get so much from this site and your words of wisdom and I thank you for being real. Thank you for giving me the inspiration and hope to continue to work hard and be a doer and not a talker. 

First I was like: Uff that is a long article!Should I read it later? Is it worth the time?
But now it really hit me! So many things I was already thinking about a long time but never heard or read about! This is def the most honest and motivating article about creative work I ever read!
Development is the work of dissatisfaction :)

Great read, thank you

Nicholas's picture

I am incredibly grateful for your words.

Great Read....I needed article as a reminder of what being a "do'er" can achieve and to treat every job like your dream job. 
Thanks Again

great post, I have a friend that REALLY needed to hear just this!! 

Avrohom Perl's picture

What a beautiful and educational rant.

Lauren Jonas's picture

My favorite line..."I wrote this to myself because I am probably the laziest person I know. I
needed to give myself a pep-talk for 2013. There are a lot of ideas
that I need to make realities".

Great write up, Lee!

Mike Pomazal's picture

I absolutely agree, especially with the part about being "do'ers".  Really great article Lee.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Tyler's picture

I'm an 18 year old photographer living in Los Angeles. Even though I'm working extremely hard, this town is so oversatured with "professional photographers" that I often times wonder if I'll ever be successful as a photographer. I'm glad that I'm not the only one who's filled with self-doubt occasionally. 

Patrick Hall's picture

Stick with it Tyler.  A big part of "doing" is simply building relationships while you do things.  Work hard at your craft, strive to create the best images possible, and value the relationships you make along the way.  The second you look at all your "competition" is the second you fail to reach your own goals.  Keep it up!

I agree with Patrick's response - Also, realize that every professional photographer "at the top" started at one point as a person who didn't know how to use a camera, or a light, and were intimidated by the professionals who were "at the top" during their time... convincing themselves that they should be there but will never get noticed. 
-Some top pros started learning photography when they were in their middle or later years of life! You're 18? - trust me, you keep at it you'll scare the crap out of some new learner when you're older with that much life left to learn and hone your craft. ;)

Hey mate! I'm a 19 year old photographer in Chicago.  Lets connect! 

hey man.. I'm in Los Angeles too. You are right about this town being saturated with photographers and it being hard to break out.

The only way you are gonna make even a little bit of money in LA is to find your niche and really narrow your focus and network where your potential clients are. Good luck.

Eric Edwins's picture

Brilliant! Thank you.

Awesome article! Got me thinking...

brian's picture

Lee, I would say you've posted something that's new and fresh, but in reality it's something we've all read somewhere else on a different blog or post. I'm not knocking this one bit since it does apply to me, but it's a retread of any inspirational book you can find at Barnes & Noble (or Amazon store). 

The point of my post is that seeing you post it will help many photographers (like myself) get off their collective "asses", and do something with their wanna-be professional lives. Most photographers end up being "guys with a camera", but this post will propel those select few into the vein of being a photographer. Hell, they might even tell stories of the day they were on the internet, and fell onto a photography blog talking about idols...

Joe Russo's picture

 I needed that read too.
I toss around the word 'hope' too often, and don't move on a lot of projects due to some really lame excuses.

Thank you very much for laying it out honestly, I really appreciate it.

Paul Hance's picture

Good Job Lee. This is inspirational and you hit all of the main point clearly. Bravo bro

Great article! I loved the 10 light story.. got me thinking!