Growing your skillset and your career as an artist can be filled with pitfalls. But even though many mistakes are shared amongst nearly all photographers, the good news is that most can be avoided if you only know where to look.
I am by no means immune to mistakes. I’ve been in business now for over two decades, and I’ve made many mistakes too egregious to recount here. After all, kids may be reading, so I need to watch my language. And the excess of my stupidity at times might be considered, in the famous words of Marlon Brando, pure “horror.” But my mistakes, like most mistakes, usually aren’t the result of intentional malice, but rather the result of positive intentions derailed by misplaced theories. The decisions were made with the best information I had at the time. I just hadn’t learned enough yet to see the danger lurking around the corner.
I’ve made too many mistakes to mention them all, but here are a few that stand out. Worse yet, these are ones that, if you don’t pay attention, you can continue to make more than once, even after your career gets going. Great movies tend to spawn sequels. And these mistakes are much the same. So, you have to be vigilant to keep them at bay.
Trying to Be Like Other Photographers
More than likely, part of your growing interest in photography was spurred on by seeing the work of other amazing photographers. I know that, as I was starting, there was no limit to the amount of time I could spend looking at an Annie Leibovitz portrait trying desperately to re-engineer it in my head and figure out how I could one day get to that level. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, there was an artist like photojournalist James Nachtwey. His ability to create sheer poetry out of the true horror of war was something my brain simply couldn’t fathom. How on Earth is this guy able to create better images without lighting, control over the situation, or any more than the ability to react to what’s happening, than I was able to create with a month of planning and all the tools in the world? Great artists can inspire us. They can serve as something of a north star. A level to which we desire to one day achieve.
But there’s a difference between wanting to achieve another artist's level of success and wanting to copy their style. It’s easy to look at the technical skill of someone like Annie Leibovitz and think that if you just watch enough YouTube tutorials and get the right gear, that you can make the same images as she does. And sure, if you follow a lighting diagram to a tee and dedicate enough hours to Photoshop, it’s possible you could create an image that, at least technically, is in the general ballpark. But artistry is about more than simply technical techniques. It’s more than simply having the most expensive gear. It’s about having a unique voice. I can study Annie Leibovitz as much as I want. I can approximate her technique all I want. But, no matter how close I get technical, I’ll never be able to recreate that special thing that makes her great. Why? Because I’m not her. Even if I have the same gear or the world smiles at me and somehow I have the same budget, I still won’t have her life experiences. I won’t have all the little moments that have gone into forming her unique perspective. This type of artistic DNA is imprinted on us through the lives we live. It’s not only the result of how many times we’ve pressed the shutter button. It’s the result of how we grew up, our relationship with our parents, that girl in the second grade who laughed at me when I gave her my Valentine-themed candy with “I Love You” printed in red. One million and one things go into what makes us who we are as human beings. And those are the things that will go into who we are as artists. You can’t be the same as another photographer because you can’t be the same as another human being. The highest level you could reach by attempting to copy another person's style would be to become a pale comparison. And being a lesser version of someone else isn't likely among anyone's aspirations in life.
Confusing Gear With Artistry
A director and cinematographer I respect, Benoit Delhomme, makes these little fun sketches on his Instagram feed. The other day, he posted a comical sketch he made of a T-shirt concept that read: “I have nothing to say, but I own a 6K camera.” I chuckled out loud because it summed up so much of the basic trap that almost every image-maker falls into from time to time.
Because part of my role with Fstoppers is to write about gear, I find myself unable to completely avoid the non-stop marketing vortex that is the discussion of new camera products on the market. The endless and pointless debates about DSLR versus mirrorless. The dogged insistence is that Brand A simply has to be dying because their autofocus is a millisecond slower than Brand B, immediately followed by a complete reversal once Brand A catches up six months later. There is the simply asinine insistence that a camera isn’t a “professional” camera if it doesn’t have this feature or that one. Quite honestly, the madness never stops. And while I am always one for keeping yourself informed, the level of technical specs that have become unwillingly implanted in my brain over these last few years is the type of facts I could do without.
But here’s a simple fact. You already have all the equipment you need to be a photographer. Sure, that assumes that you at least have a camera. If not, then, yes, you should probably watch a few videos and read some reviews to find out which one you want to buy. Likewise, if you are specifically trying to learn flash, at some point you will want to pick up an actual flash for your system. That makes sense. But, let’s be honest, 99.9% of the people watching these gear reviews are doing so trying to see if it’s worthwhile to upgrade their current perfectly functional gear for the latest and greatest. And 99.9% of those people don’t so much need new gear as they are trying to find enough data to convince themselves that they need new gear so they can justify the purchase in their head.
But repeat after me: “I already have everything I need.” As discussed in the previous section, what made Annie Leibovitz into a legend was not that she could afford a nice camera. There are a lot of wealthy people who can buy nice things. But there are still a limited number of great artists. One of my favorite quotes, I have no idea who first said this, is that the pencil has been around for centuries. Yet, there are no more great authors in the world now than there were in the past. Being an artist is about what you have to say, not the tools you use to say it. Take those hours you are currently spending watching new gear release videos and pour that into developing your artistic voice. That’s the kind of investment that will last a lifetime, and it won’t cost you a dime.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Someone Else’s Success
I used to study a great deal of Eastern philosophy, and there’s a saying that I read once, which I’ve never forgotten. Well, I might have forgotten the exact words, but I’ve never forgotten the gist. Essentially, it says that “an elephant doesn’t walk in a rabbit’s path.” In other words, trying to define your journey by the ones who came before you is a fool’s errand. Just like we all have different experiences that lead us to our artistic voice, we all have different pathways to reach our ultimate goals. We even all define success slightly differently. So, to try to measure your growth using someone else’s yardstick is an exercise in futility.
Of course, the current world doesn’t make this delineation easy. We live in a world where we are bombarded with images on social media. 24/7, we are presented image after image of someone doing better than we are, of someone with more financial reward than ourselves, of people seeming to live the lives we’ve dreamed of for ourselves. True, these images are self-curated. True, we have absolutely no way to verify how exactly our buddy Dale from high school ended up standing between a Tesla and a supermodel in what appears to be some sort of magical lagoon. But our minds are powerful machines. And, often even over our objections, the simple deluge of imagery day in and day out can cause our brains to internalize the idea that we simply can’t measure up.
But as real as our brains can convince us that the gap between us and them is, the fact of the matter is that, real or not, these moments are simply snapshots of someone else's journey and not a reflection on our progress. Regardless of the circumstances of our lives, it is possible to present an image to the world that we wish if we are only to share the highlight reel. Sure, you might see your friend standing next to the Tesla. But you might not have seen all the hours of hard work Dale put in to get to put him in that position. You might see the image of the happy couple celebrating their anniversary. But you might not have seen all the late-night arguments or the issues they had to work through to create the bond that has kept them together for so many years.
No matter how much success you obtain personally, you will always lose trying to compare yourself to someone else because there will simply always be someone in the world more successful than you, at least based on whatever arbitrary measuring stick you’ve chosen to do the judging. And, even if they aren’t nearly as successful as it may seem, you have no way of knowing for sure, so constantly obsessing about your place on the totem pole can only serve as a distraction from your journey.
Instead, lean into your path. Both the smooth sailing and those times you run the car into a ditch. Celebrate your success, not necessarily by plastering every moment on social media, but by taking notice of it yourself. You created that shot. You booked that gig. You achieved that lighting setup that deep down you always doubted would be possible.
Celebrate your success. It’s these little moments of triumph, as well as their stepsisters of failure, that will ultimately shape your trajectory. That trajectory will shape your voice. And that unique voice is what will eventually set you apart from the marketplace and allow you to live the dream you’ve always wanted, with or without the latest and greatest gear.