Life as an artist is a never-ending series of peaks and valleys full of both joy and inevitable disappointment. But adding a bit of routine into a life seemingly devoid of it can make you both a better photographer and a happier human being.
I remember several years ago, before I became a full-time professional photographer and was still splitting my time between soul-nurturing art and soul-crushing day jobs, I found myself sitting at the large wooden desk behind which I spent the majority of my days. My company-provided computer monitor should have been showing the most up-to-date spreadsheet or mainframe interface that would allow me to do whatever job it was they were paying me to do that day. But as, by this point, I had perfected the process of finishing my daily tasks early in order to spend time building my exit ramp from this drudgery through photography, my screen was instead occupied with an extremely detailed treatment I was preparing for a photoshoot over the coming weekend.
My coworker, well aware of my double life, passed by my desk and saw the inordinate amount of planning that was going into making the shoot a success and stopped to observe with a somewhat stunned expression. When I asked him about his countenance, he mentioned how he was always so surprised by the amount of work that went into every one of my shoots. When he thought of a photo shoot, he figured a photographer would just show up some place with a camera, take a few snaps of whatever was there, then spend the rest of the day sipping Mojitos on the beach with the models. He had no idea about the level of production that went into it.
That moment was too long ago for me to remember which shoot it was that I was preparing for. I’m not even 100% sure if the shoot was a success. But I start my essay today with that story as a simple reminder that being an artist, especially a commercial artist, is hard work. It’s not easy living your life in an ultra-competitive world, without guarantees, and in a profession that requires you to put yourself out there each and every day.
So, here are just a few daily practices that can help you see your way ahead.
Improve Your Craft
Being a photographer, perhaps more than most careers, is greatly enhanced by having some level of natural talent. Anyone can teach themselves techniques to execute proper exposure, but some people are simply more gifted than others creatively. There’s no shame in it. Some people are taller than others. Some people are faster. We all have our gifts. And at least having a minimal bent towards the creative side of life is probably a pretty decent precursor to success as a photographer.
With that being said, talent isn’t everything. The world is full of talented people. What the world often has a shortage of, however, are people willing to put in the hard work to get better. Being over six feet tall in middle school gave me an advantage when playing basketball at recess. But as time went on and my classmates caught up to me and often exceeded my dimensions, I realized that my skill, not my size, was the thing that would set me apart. And those skills required practice.
Same with photography. We’ve already established that having some natural talent for art is a good place to start. But if you plan to build a career and, more importantly, maintain that career, you are also going to need the tangible skills to back it up. You need to expand your creativity. But you also need to expand your understanding of the nuts and bolts craft necessary to translate that creativity in your head into practical results.
Luckily, you don’t have to learn it all in one day. Knowledge is something that you acquire over time and through repetition. But to get the most knowledge you can, it pays to make a concerted effort every day to improve your skill set. Even if it’s as simple as learning one basic new tool in your camera menu, the daily practice of intentionally getting better with your craft will help you make the most of your natural abilities.
Spend More Time Thinking About How to Earn Money Than Spend It
I have spilled so much ink over the years, seemingly making the same point. But that’s simply because it seems to be an eternal problem. Even for me.
But let's repeat it here once again. Gear is simply a tool that helps you create art. The gear itself is not your art. It doesn’t matter one iota what camera you have in your hand. The only thing that matters is that you are able to translate the vision in your head into a photograph. It doesn’t matter what gear you use. It matters what unique creativity you bring to the table.
So, why do most of us spend endless hours a month obsessing over camera gear instead of spending that time trying to figure out how to grow our business?
Like I said, I’m guilty myself. I am well aware of every new tool that hits the market and spend far too much energy debating whether or not every new iteration of a camera will make me more or less productive. But, in actuality, what would be most productive would be for me to turn off that YouTube video and reopen my prospective client list to start reaching out. Instead of worrying about autofocus speed, I should be spending time revising my business plan to make sure my business is up to speed.
You should never be in a position where you spend more time thinking about what you can buy than you do earning the money to pay for it. Obviously, if you’re a hobbyist (lucky you), you are more than welcome to spend more on photography than you bring in. But, if you are doing this for a living, spending more time thinking about buying than you do selling is an equation that just won’t add up.
Here’s the thing about a career in the arts: when things go well, it’s a high like most people will never know. When you book a new client, have a great shoot, or win some award, it can give you a rush that’s hard to explain to others who might not be part of our world.
But between those successes we are likely to face just as many, if not more, disappointments. Regardless of your level of success, artists will carry more than our fair share of defeats. Even for the most positive of people, this can start to wear on you over time. If it wears on you long enough, you might find yourself inclined to give up the fight.
So, how do you fight back in the face of insurmountable odds? How do you keep hold of your positive outlook? Well, a good place to start is to remember that regardless of what may be going on, you are always in possession of endless things to be grateful for. Maybe it’s your family. Maybe it’s your pet. Maybe it’s the fact that you found an outlet that truly gives your life meaning. Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve been gifted another day of life. Another sunrise to wake up and try again.
We can fool ourselves into thinking that the only “good” things that happen to us are the headline items. We can fool ourselves into thinking that if something isn’t Instagram post worthy, that it simply doesn’t matter. But being fortunate enough to be on this Earth matters. Being gifted with people who love us matters. And having the freedom to pursue our dreams, even if they don’t work out as we planned, is something to be truly grateful for every day.
When you remind yourself every day of the good things in your life, it helps to fill up your positivity bank. And that positivity bank is going to be necessary to provide you with the strength to make it through your day.
Put Your Camera Away
Of all the things I’ve mentioned, this is by far the hardest for me to practice. I’m a bit O.C.D. When my mind gets locked onto something, it’s very hard for me to let go and think of anything else. This has actually helped me in my career as it’s forced me to work hard. Even if I don’t want to work hard, I’m going to do it anyway because my mind won’t let me focus on anything else until I’ve completed the task ahead.
But the downside of this is that it is very easy to think that your career is your life. I know that for career-motivated people, like myself, it can seem like success is a matter of life and death. But, unless you’re a soldier, the odds are that whatever happened to you at work today is far less critical in the big picture than you are giving it credit for.
As I mentioned earlier, you should put in the hard work to improve your craft and creativity to advance your career. But, equally important, you should make time to step away from your art for a moment and simply live your life. Every life event doesn’t have to be fodder for a photoshoot. Not everyone you meet needs to be considered for their photographic potential as a subject. It is possible to travel without needing to take pictures of the experience. Sometimes, it’s enough just to have the experience at all. Cherish your art. But, don’t forget to cherish your life.