The Biggest Life Lesson for Becoming a Successful Photographer

The Biggest Life Lesson for Becoming a Successful Photographer

There's a big mistake some photographers repeat time and again. It can cause more damage to their professional or amateur career than an out-of-focus photograph.

I am typing this in an apartment in Warsaw, Poland. On the wall are a series of black and white prints of Paris. They are fabulous shots, perfectly executed, and as a collection, they work well together. They are also nicely printed onto acrylic boards.

At first, I thought they were mass-produced prints bought from IKEA or some similar store. I used Google Lens to identify the photographer. Although that tool's magic correctly identified them as Paris, it didn't find a match for those exact photos. So, I can only conclude that they were shot by the apartment's owner or bought from a professional photographer.

Yesterday, I was in IKEA, joking with my Polish friend — one of the best photographers I know — that I was being given an authentic Polish experience. IKEA sells fantastic framed photo prints at exceptionally low cost.

Later, we walked through a shopping mall in the center of Warsaw. I'm not a fan of malls. No matter where in the world you are, they are all the same with similar shops, mostly selling the same mass-produced junk. Furthermore, they seem to suck out my energy like concrete vampires. Give me an outdoor market to photograph over a mall any day. Of course, there were generic lifestyle shops, some of which were also selling mass-produced photo prints.

As a professional photographer who sells prints, it is disconcerting that the public can buy great photographs for far less than I can even produce mine.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that works in my favor. Like two women arriving at a party wearing the same dress, when someone buys a print from IKEA, they risk their friends having the same work hanging on their wall. Displaying a generic print produced in its thousands will mean that visitors have at least seen the photo before. They will also probably know the store it came from too. Consequently, the print is unlikely to hold their attention for long.

There is an important point we photographers can learn from that. Marketing experts harp on about the unique selling point, the USP. Your images are unique. When your customer next holds a house party, their guests will see and be interested in the art hanging on their walls because it is unlike anything else they have seen. The host will tell them about the photograph and you too.

When someone buys your photograph, they invest in you, not just your photography. That is important because your business should aim at about 80% of your clients being repeat customers. There are good reasons why for both the buyer and the photographer. Firstly, the buyer should be motivated to come back for more of the same; they will want work that fits with what they already have. If you have a singular style, your other work will fit alongside their previous purchases. For you, the photographer, it means they don't have to invest as much time, money, and energy into advertising.

However, most importantly, you must be the kind of person the buyer wants to invest in.

As a photographer, that means giving a bit of yourself to the client, not just the product or service. Your customers want to think of you as a friend. Be an Eagle Scout.

Scouting is still the largest worldwide youth organization, and its success is very much due to its ethos. More than half of the most successful people in the world are former Scouts, compared with a quarter of the general population. Scouts and Girl Guides around the world are committed to a very similar set of rules. It is what makes them so successful. Their ethos is built around a common set of laws that Scouts follow. They vary slightly from country to country, but they all include trust, loyalty, friendliness, consideration, helpfulness, courage, and kindness. Those are the attributes in which your customers, clients, and followers want to invest.

But it is one area where some photographers fall and hit the rocks.

There's a photographer I've met whose business isn't doing well. There is a reason for that. Firstly, he comes across as angry. He also has a reputation for being a bigot, regularly places sarcastic comments online, and never celebrates others' successes. His rotten attitude does damage his reputation far more than any harm he does to others.  

Have you heard about the six degrees of separation? It's the idea that any person on the planet is connected to anyone else through a chain of acquaintances with five or fewer links. In the photography world, it is a far smaller chain with just two links. How you use that is important.

A few days ago, one prominent photographer decided to post on his personal Facebook wall an unfounded, negative comment. Someone took a screenshot of the post and shared it with their friend, who is a writer here. Subsequently, the screenshot circulated among the entire writing team. Most of the team here has close contacts with other writers, publishers, camera industry staff, and website owners. The photographer severely damaged his reputation and business with one poorly thought-through, malign post.

In a marketing training course in the early 1990s, long before anyone had heard the phrase "social media," I was told that if a customer received good service, they would tell one other person. However, they would tell 10 if they had a bad customer experience. If people are unkind online, their attitude gets noticed more than what they say. The word spreads, and it comes back to bite them.

A while ago, I considered interviewing one of the readers here because I thought their work was worth promoting. I then saw the nature of most of the comments he wrote on articles; they were invariably mean-spirited. He runs a photography business. I wonder how many clients have flown away or opportunities missed because of the reaction to his comments.

I'm not saying you should not complain when things are bad, but always favor kindness and shun malicious intent. The latter will always come back to bite you. If you are receiving someone's negativity, then be assured that it will do you little harm. A fellow writer told me that an agent once promised to ruin his career. The writer's career is thriving, and nobody wants to work with the agent. That kind of extreme behavior is rare, but there are things you can do if it happens.

In short, if you want someone to like or keep buying your work, you need them to like you. Being a good photographer is not enough; you must be a good person too.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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Excellent article Ivor - thank you!

I went to an event at my local university where they interviewed a "local boy made good" - now a well-known actor.

He was asked what advice he'd give to someone just starting out and he said "It's simple really - be nice. There are lots of people in this business who can be angry, arrogant or just plain nasty. If you always try to be nice, people will remember you for it and they'll want to work with you again."

Thank you, Bruce. I am glad you enjoyed it. (I'm intrigued to know who the actor was now.)

Hi Ivor,
It was Robert Webb (Peep Show etc.).
All the best,

Thanks Bruce. They were wise words.