Today, I’d just like to muse a bit of some lessons I’ve learned over a long career as a professional photographer. Hopefully, some of these concepts will help you as well.
It’s at this point in most of my articles that I will state the obvious disclaimers about how we are all different, how my opinion is based on my own experience, and several other things that should be obvious but don’t always seem so obvious to all readers. But, I’ll skip that part this time, as many of my standard disclaimers will be addressed in the points below. True, these are my personal opinions. But, I believe that these are dilemmas that every artist will encounter at some point in their career, regardless of your shooting style or specialty. So, let’s jump right in.
Don’t Confuse Gear For Skill
Okay, I guess I do need to do one disclaimer. Cameras are cool. Very cool. If you didn’t feel that way, it’s a good chance that you would be heading down a different career path. And, we, as photographers, form a special bond with our chosen camera of choice that defies all logic and can border on the realm of emotional attachment. They are just an assembly of metal, plastic, glass, and rubber after all. They aren’t human beings. But, much like that sad lamp in the IKEA commercial, we seem to heap upon these tools the same level of affection that some of us have been sadly denying our eldest children.
Because this emotional bond can be so strong, we tend to put an inordinate amount of emphasis on which camera we are using to ply our trade. Every time we see a great image, we wonder, what kind of camera was he using? Or, I wonder what lens she shot that on? We get into entirely unreasonable debates in internet comment sections where we question each other’s qualifications to exist simply because someone else has chosen to shoot with a Nikon instead of Sony. Somehow, we seem to have bought into the marketing hype and have internalized the idea that it’s the camera that takes the picture and not the human being that’s operating it.
But the simple fact of the matter is that you more than likely already have every piece of equipment you’ll ever need to be a great photographer. Sure, you might fall into a specific genre of photography that requires a certain type of lens or a certain spec inside the body. But, when it comes to becoming a great photographer, there is no physical product you can buy that is going to replace a lack of practice.
An average photographer with a $20,000 medium format system isn’t going to produce better images than a great photographer with a 15-year-old $300 used DSLR who has taken the time to learn how to use it. Sure, the $20,000 camera will give you a certain amount of pixel density and/or allow you to shoot so many frames per second that the cheaper camera might objectively be unable to provide. But people don’t look at a great image and say, “wow, look at all those megapixels!” They look at a great image and say, “wow, look how he used light.” “Wow, I can’t believe she was able to capture that exact moment.” “Man, oh man, I have no idea how they pulled off that shot. I never would have thought of that.”
Those are the kind of reactions you only get when you have taken the time to really work on your skill set. Talent is only a starting point. Taking the time outside the spotlight to develop that talent into a repeatable skill is something that may not always come with plaudits, but is the key to actually achieving the heights in photography which we all aspire to.
Buying new gear is a lot of fun. Too much fun, according to my own bank account. But you can’t buy skill and talent. If you could, everyone with a big bank account would be a great artist. True skill only comes from putting in the hard work behind the scenes to get better. And that’s not something that can ever be put on credit.
Understand That There Is No One Way to Be an Artist
I remember one of my early breakthroughs as a photographer came from a very unlikely source for advice. It was early in my photography journey, and I was very much still in the mode of trying to learn the very basics. Actually, I guess it’s more accurate to say that I was already into my journey, had already had some success, but was really flying by the seat of my pants and natural talent rather than having the technical knowledge to back up some of the things I was just doing on instinct.
In an effort to have my craft keep up with my creativity, I started devouring every rudimentary photography book I could get my hands on. Some of this stuff I already knew. But going over the ABCs again was a terrific refresher course that helped me put more substance behind what I was doing. I still repeat this practice of relearning the basics today, nearly twenty years in, as I find that you are never too wise to humble yourself and try to learn a little more. That goes with everything in life. I just so happen to be a photographer.
So, there I was reading this instructional manual on how to accurately expose a photograph, and the author slipped in one sentence that has stuck with me more than anything else in the book. While explaining how to achieve a correct exposure, he pointed out that the term “correct exposure” is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, there is a mathematically correct exposure for a particular photograph. If you meter your lights, your ambience, your subjects, and everything else, you can land on an exact combination of settings that will render middle gray. Knowing how to do that is step one of photography, so it’s important to not overlook that.
But who’s to say that exposure is the “correct” one? It might be mathematically correct. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the right exposure for the image you are trying to create. Perhaps you want an image to be dark to signal something ominous in the murky details. Perhaps you want an image to feel overexposed to convey the idea of electricity or levity. Whatever the reason, being technically right isn’t always the same thing as being right in actual practice. There are a million and one ways you can choose to make a photograph, and only you can decide which is the right one.
Of course, this subjectivity also expands beyond simple exposure. If you’re making your way up in the photography world, it is likely that you are tempted to try and model yourself after another photographer who may have already experienced the type of success you envision for your own career. It’s never a bad idea to look to those who have come before as their own journey’s can help enlighten our own potential path to success. But it’s important to remember that you reach the mountain top in any artistic field, not by being a copy, but by being an original. And there is no one right way to succeed.
I absolutely love Annie Leibovitz’s work. But the world doesn’t need another Annie Leibovitz. It’s already got one. I could try to spend my career trying to do what she does. But, if I did, the best I could expect in return is to have some less discerning clients hire me once in a blue moon for cutthroat wages because they can’t afford her. What’s the fun in that? Clients pay great photographers the big bucks because they have a unique perspective that no one else can duplicate. If you could learn it from watching a YouTube tutorial or reverse engineering someone else’s work, we’d all be millionaires.
Just like finding your own “correct” exposure, you have to find the career path and aesthetic approach that’s right for you. You have to decide what you want to shoot. You have to identify what you’re good at shooting. You have to figure out your place in the market and find out how you fit in. All of those questions will be answered differently for every photographer. So, your goal isn’t to try and figure out how to be a better version of someone else. Your goal is to try and learn to be the best version of yourself.
Keep Moving Your Goalposts
“Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!” Al Pacino may have been referring to the mafia in that famous quote from The Godfather trilogy, but the emotion applies well outside the world of organized crime. Oftentimes, including in the preceding segment of this essay, I will stress to photographers how important it is to develop your own voice. Finding your unique aesthetic and your place in the world is a lot tougher than it sounds. More often than not, it’s equal parts photo exploration and deep psychological analysis. The photography part is far more fun. But the self-analysis is absolutely critical in finding meaningful work in any profession.
Even worse than knowing that, at some point, you will really need to dig into what makes you tick under the surface in order to really hone in on the best version of yourself as an artist, is known that once you finally do come up with the elusive answer, you might just find that the person you were a few years ago is no longer the person you are today.
As the gray hairs continue to multiply, so do the hopes and expectations that we have for our lives. When we are just starting out, we envision that, one day, we will reach a point in our professional and personal lives when we feel as though we have arrived. We will feel that we are finally “there,” wherever “there” might be.
And, if you have enough good fortune, there is an honest chance that you might really one day find yourself standing on a mountain top overlooking the crashing waves of the ocean below and assert confidently that you really have accomplished all that you set out to do. If life were a movie, this is where the image would begin to fade into the rolling credits, adjoined by a soon-to-be Oscar nominated track by Bruce Springsteen that will have the audience walking out with happy tears in their eyes.
But life is not a movie. And, more than likely, your time at the mountain top will almost immediately be followed by a single burning question. What’s next?
With every accomplishment you achieve, another new goal will simply sprout in its place. Such is life. You can either stare into the prospect of endless goal shifting as a reason to never try in the first place, or you can look at this as an endless opportunity to grow and improve.
I won’t lie to you. I’ve been dejected on more than one occasion after I have finally achieved a big goal for my career, only to be surprised at both how fleeting that joy would be and how even achieving the most unobtainable seeming goals didn’t seem to result in my feeling any more fulfilled than when I woke up the morning before.
If you are an ambitious person, you are always going to want more. It's just a fact of life that comes with the territory. If you can learn to embrace this constant pursuit instead of fighting against it, you will not only be a better photographer, but also a happier person in return.
Okay, that’s enough rambling for the day. Ironically, I had a gear review planned for today’s article. But, as point number one suggests, those things are really only so important in the grand equation. Far more important is embracing your own journey and pushing yourself to be the best artist that you can. These are the things that money can’t buy.