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How to Become a Successful Photographer... Slowly

How to Become a Successful Photographer... Slowly

Being busy doesn't mean being profitable. Working on all kinds of projects doesn't lead to a successful photography career. This article is not the usual "Five quick steps to become a wealthy photographer." To be honest, it's a slow process, but if you understand its principles it will guide you on the journey to success.

Fast-Paced World

We live in a world where we are used to having things today and now. We see a demand for easy formulas for professional pictures, quick easy steps for successful businesses, easy money (a.k.a. debt). While there are indeed easy to achieve results, such as how to make homemade cookies, there will never be an easy and quick way to become a successful craftsman or a business person. That's bad news for the lazy folk and good news for all the industrious ones. It takes patience and work to become good at anything. The lazy ones are scared to take this direction. In the world we live in they are outnumbering the hard working people. This means if you take the journey of patience you won't have many to compete with after some time.

But Photography is so Accessible Today, They Say

Although tools and resources for photography and video are so available today the number of great artists is not that great. What is the reason for that? It's patience, wisdom, and hard work. Patience, wisdom, and hard work are not more available today than in the past. They are here all the time waiting to be utilized. The tools don't make the skilled artists. Tools are tools. They are useless in the poor craftsman's hands, while they are performing great in the hands of a skilled professional.

Being Good in Many Areas

Let's say you want to be good at many areas of photography. If you want it you will need more time. You can't work this around. Yes, don't get caught in the "exposure triangle" or "composition" boundaries. Photography is much beyond that. Do you know that in food photography you may have to understand the properties of different foods and dishes, how they degrade over time? Do you know where is more likely to find birds for wildlife photography? Do you know that when shooting commercial portraits you may not have all the time in the world with your subjects? Do you know that you need great personality if you want to keep those clients coming back? Learning the technique of photography is far from enough. Learning the details of each area of photography takes time. It's the hidden details that matter, not the general information.

If you are in a search of a food photographer and you find two websites: one of them shows a professional that shoots only food and products; the other shows a good photographer who shoots seniors, weddings, products, fashion, editorial, corporate headshots, landscapes, street, and pets. Which one would seem best for the job? The answer is: the one with more experience in the craft. The first one may be a young photographer with little experience, while the second one could be one with more than 40 years behind the lens. But in general, we, as clients, assume that those who show greater results in fewer areas are more experienced than those who are all over the place.

If you think this is the common client mentality, you should pursue such an image for your business: someone in the craft who is very good only at specific areas. After all, you don't have all the time in the world to be very good at everything.

Let's say you want to be very good at commercial portraiture. No magazine would give you the opportunity straight away to shoot their cover as you are nobody. How to keep your business up and running if you don't profit from that? You have two basic options: to shoot anything that earns you money or to shoot projects close to the area you'd like to specialize in.

Shooting Any Kind of Project

I admit this is not the best option for you. The reasons are several: each project eats from the time you need to pursue your desired area of development. If you want to be profitable you have to do every job diligently. This takes time. You could start getting more references for jobs of the same kind that are not of your speciality, and the cycle repeats. You could either redirect your efforts or try to be more selective. If you publish the results of every job you will become the image of the photographer who shoots all kinds of genres with no particular focus.

Shooting Projects Focused In a Certain Area

That's the right approach if you want to specialize in a certain area. In order to maintain your business you may have to take projects that are close enough to your journey road without going too far. Remember to work on personal projects that are in the direction you want to go. They attract clients of your kind. Occasionally there could be jobs that you don't usually do, but it's OK if they'd help you invest in your main purpose.

Services vs. Products

In the past the majority of people were into the production area. A minority worked in the services. Today it's quite the opposite. Working as a service leaves you all in the mercy of the clients as you don't have anything to show unless you are hired to do so. The services, hence the name, serve the client by listening to every caprice of theirs. The client is an absolute king in this case. If you don't have clients or the market is saturated with mediocre needs you will be an unsuccessful or mediocre service. You will complain from the clients, from the market, from the business ideas you have to execute. You will complain you have to compete always on a price level as there will be lots of other services waiting to be exploited for the lowest price. What's the difference between one service to another? Usually it's only the price as they all do what the client wants. Competing at price level will always lead to a failure at certain market conditions. This is the reason for the existence of many "nobody" services.

That's why photographers have to market themselves as products, not as services. Being a product, rather than a service, means you are unique in terms of style, vision, personality. When you are good at your craft, you present work that has your fingerprints. You won't be considered good for the job because of your price (whether it's high or low). Pricing is a whole other area that I've covered in a previous article about commercial and non-commercial photography rates. However becoming a product, a brand, is all about focusing on a specific area and maintaining consistent high quality work. You are not a large corporation that can work in many areas at once. You are a small boutique business. Don't pretend to be a corporation. Stay small, be of high quality, be consistent.


My advice is not to think big. Be realistic and patient. Study the biography of photographers you admire. See how long it took them to reach to a certain level. I did that. Almost all the time it's in a period of years. If it was that easy success would be accessible by those who don't deserve it. That's why it's hard, that's why it takes time, because only those who are patient enough and smart will reach to the final goal. I find justice in that. Remind yourself these words when you don't see the results immediately. Study the life of the honest and successful people. You'll see this pattern repeating over and over again regardless of technology and fashion.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Tihomir Lazarov is a commercial portrait photographer and filmmaker based in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is the best photographer and filmmaker in his house, and thinks the best tool of a visual artist is not in their gear bag but between their ears.

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First of all, interesting article, and some interesting viewpoints. Im not sure what it is your trying to say with this part "Being Good in Many Areas". It didn't reach a conclusion, or did I miss the point?

I think it's related to the phrase "jack of all trades and master of none", some people go for that and they do good/great working on several genres/types of photography while others just stick to one because there is a lot to learn besides just managing settings in camera, if you focus in one or two you'll have time to specialize in them and profit more because few people do this, if you go for jack of all trades, you'll need more time as you'll have more things to learn, but people who do this, usually don't get noticed as their work never gets the chance to stand out of the average.

Yes. I don't mean it's not possible but it's not possible over a reasonable period in the times we live.

I also know that mastering a few things in the first years helps us master more easily quickly after that. But the first 4-5 years are usually those that have to be focused on mastering fewer things.

Okay then i did get it right. Of course it makes sense, that if you spend at lot of time doing one thing you develop you skill doing this one thing. And of course you can't master everything. But if we take the example with the young lad who is specialized in one field, and the old guy who ave a life time of experience in different genres. I'll properly go with the old guy, even though he aren't specialized in one field. What im trying to say is, that I think tried different genres only adds to the quality. I not sure if anything can beat experience.

Hope it makes sense, english is not my native tongue.

It makes sense and that's why I gave this example. The common client would go for the younger one (we assume they both had good images as examples in their portfolio). The reason is that there's a smaller chance someone is good at so many things at once.

In the past it was a common thing an architect or a builder to be good at music, woodworking, mechanics, and others. Why music? They knew the secrets of sequences of window sizes (for example) that would make for a good melody. Although these masters were good at lots of crafts they called themselves (for example) arthictects, because all others were playing a supporting role.

It may sound a bit contradictory with my article, but I am against specializing in just one field exactly for this reason. It may be of quite help to have other skills that may complement the main ability.

Okay. But once again, great article and defiantly an interesting subject.

I find this interesting, although I will say the following... When I started in photography in the early '80's you had to know how to shoot a variety of subjects mainly because there were a lots of magazines concentrating on different subjects in their issues (ranging from fashion to home products, etc). I mainly focused on people photography, editorial and fashion (not high fashion) style. What always interest me was that I would get calls from magazine editors to shoot things I've never done before and had to learn quickly. Of course my portfolio would show a style of what I've mentioned before, but the editors would call asking if I would be interested in shooting something else like food shots for a food column or cars, etc.
Now with the Internet, websites and social media being the only way to get to clients. It's too bad that modernization has lost touch with talking to an editor has been minimizes and we have lost the personal touch. Maybe those editors that I met in interviews face to face saw a person that was more well rounded and easy to get along with so they felt comfortable asking if I would shoot whatever they had me shoot. How does this get translated over the web, social media, etc?

I have never lost that touch with my clients, because I don't work with editors. I work with small businesses and they don't need mediators. When working with bigger companies, they tend to work with agencies where there are people whom you can discuss the project with. But with small businesses most of the time you get the freedom to create the images that suit your style and you can share your thoughts with the person who manages the company.

I can relate to that Tihomir, which is why I'm looking at working with smaller entities. Seems to me the bigger the client the less artistic control you will have.