A Letter to Me: Nine Lessons for a Young Photographer

A Letter to Me: Nine Lessons for a Young Photographer

One of the reasons I love art is that is it the most effective way not only to entertain us, but to help us reflect on life itself. A well-placed verse or a well-timed press of the shutter can connect the world in ways that a thousand politicians simply can’t. 

Having lived on this earth more years than I care to admit and having resided in so many diverse geographical and societal communities, I’ve developed so varied a sense of taste that some may call it schizophrenic. With a Spotify library consisting proudly of everything from Tupac to Willie Nelson, Springsteen to Mahalia, Ramones to Sinatra, and well beyond, I’ve always drawn my enjoyment and inspiration from multiple places. So recently, when I found myself listening to to a song by one of my favorite artists, Brad Paisley’s “Letter To Me,” I thought it may also be an interesting thought experiment through which to consider my career as a photographer.

In the song, Paisley takes on the role of an older man looking back at himself as a high school student. If the older version could write a letter of advice to his younger self, what would he include? What are the lessons he would pass on?

Taking this as a jumping off point, I thought back to the Chris of 11 years ago, when I purchased my first digital camera on a whim, and set in motion a life change that I never saw coming. If I had a chance to write a letter (or an email) to travel back through time, I believe this is what I would say...

You Don’t Have to Be a Jack of All Trades

Jack of all trades, master of none. Richard Pryor used to have this great bit where he said that when he was younger “I was in all the gangs... whichever one was winning.”

At this point 11 years ago I was multiple kinds of photographers wrapped into one. Whichever cool photograph I had just seen in a magazine, I was suddenly that kind of photographer. I would set up a shoot to try and copy the style, produce an image I was happy with, and suddenly I was a celebrity photographer. Or a high fashion photographer. Or a sports sideline photographer. Or an event photographer. Or a… you get the picture.  

Because I was self taught and didn’t have an opportunity to go to formal photography school, I always felt that, on some level, there was some secret fountain of information that everyone else had access to that I was missing. I kept thinking that I would be on set and the client would drag out a reference photo from a master of photography, ask me to duplicate it, and I wouldn’t know how. To plug that hole, I thought it necessary to train myself to be able to copy any photographic style on demand.

And while this gave me a valuable breadth of knowledge, what I didn’t know then is that clients hire you because of how you shoot. They don’t hire you because they like the way someone else shoots and want you to copy it. If they wanted the type of image that Photographer X shoots, they will just go hire Photographer X. So, while knowing technique is important, it is not nearly as important as knowing your technique and knowing what unique skills you are bringing to the job in the first place. Your clients are hiring you, instead of the next shooter, because you do something better than anyone else. If you spend all your time trying to be equal to everyone else, you’ll never have the time to find the one area where no one is equal to you.

If You Don’t Know Your Destination, You’ll Never Reach It

Sounds simple doesn’t it? But hearing this simple phrase was one of the most transformative moments in my career.

It was part of a lecture that I found myself watching on YouTube on a particularly depressing afternoon, sitting back in the comfy cubicle at my miserable day job, going through the motions, with one foot in the photography world but still too afraid at that point the jump in head first. I was telling myself that there were so many different avenues I could take in life. I was overwhelmed by choice; a paralysis of opportunity. It was a decidedly first-world problem to have.

But as I droned on and on about the lament inspired by not knowing where my life would take me, I was also actively avoiding admission of a simple fact. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I was just too scared to admit it.

I knew I wanted to be a professional photographer, but besieged by doubts about my abilities, memories of past failures, and the constant bombardment of the loving but misguided suggestions of friends and family that I get “a real job,” I was stunted in motion. I was afraid to openly admit that being a photographer is what I wanted, because once you let those words slip from your mouth, you will instantly realize that the only person with the power to make that happen is you. And if you don’t do it, it’s not your parents' fault because they told you not to. It’s not because your past failures mandate your future lack of success. It’s because you didn’t have the courage to follow your dreams.

By the way, I should point out that I am by no means suggesting that everyone go out and quit their day job tomorrow morning, or that you should forget about your family and financial obligations. Even following one’s dream takes some planning. But if you really want to make it happen, you can.

Yet still, all of that starts with knowing where you are going in the first place. I can’t remember exactly who was speaking in that video I watched all those years ago, but I remember exactly what he said. Comparing life to driving a vehicle, he asked: “How can you ever expect to reach your destination when you don’t know where you’re going in the first place?” A path to a creative career (or any career really) is hardly ever a straight line, but once you clearly identify your goal, it’s much easier to figure out the right route to arrive at your destination.

Test With a Purpose

For years, before finding my niche, my photographic journey consisted of mostly snapping pictures of whatever was in front of me. That lead to me taking up traveling so that I could seek more interesting things to have pass in front of my lens. That lead to more interesting people and ultimately deciding that people photography would be my focus. Years of experimentation followed, mostly in the form of one-on-one shoots. I’d find an interesting face, shoot a session with them, add the best of the shots to my portfolio, and take that portfolio in to meet with commercial clients where I would be quickly met with a polite smile, a handshake, and then nothing.

It’s not that they didn’t like the individual shots themselves, it’s just that collectively they didn’t add up to anything. Each shot may have been a somewhat random example of my diverse set of skills, but collectively, they didn’t answer the most important question: what can I do for you?

One of the main differences between photography as a career versus photography as a hobby boils down to a simple fact: when you are shooting as a hobby, your goal is to create an image you are happy with. When you are looking to build a career, you are looking to create an image that the client is happy with. And while your own aesthetic satisfaction is absolutely pivotal, you also have to develop the facility to view the work from the client’s point of view.

Think about the client's needs, not your own. You are being hired because you solve a problem, not because you are awesome. Not that you aren’t awesome, I’m sure you’re totally awesome, but the client is hiring you because they need to sell a pair of jeans and your job is to convey the client’s message and help them sell that pair of jeans and not to use the budget to experiment with new equipment or indulge your love for silhouettes (unless that’s what the customer asks for).

With this in mind, you can probably start to see why showing a portfolio full of random unconnected images of unknown individuals that, while cool, aren’t really applicable to the client will at best lead to a polite handshake but rarely lead to an actual assignment.

This does not mean you shouldn’t test. This does not mean there is no value in doing personal shoots to develop your technique and build your portfolio. What this does mean though is that you should test with a purpose.

If, for example, your goal is to build a career as a food photographer shooting for major brands, then doing a pro-bono shoot with an up-and-coming rock 'n' roll band probably isn’t going to help you in your goal. What might help you though is to test with a new food stylist and create a series of images that would be applicable specifically to a brand that you want to shoot for. Have a look at that brand’s website or marketing materials. What type of imagery do they use? How does that intersect with your own personal style? Go out and produce a mock campaign the way you would shoot if they were to give you an assignment, then put that assignment in your portfolio and take it to your meeting with the client. 

Now, the client isn’t just looking at a random assembly of well executed images; Now, they are looking at a full campaign. They are looking at a campaign similar to the ones that they need to sell their product. You have identified their need. You have proven you can fill that need in a unique way. You have just given your dream client a reason to call.

Opportunities Will Arise When You Least Expect Them, So Your Job Is to Always Be Prepared

Despite having played American football most of my life, in the last 15 years I have become a soccer fanatic. Specifically, an unreasonably emotionally linked fan of FC Barcelona (feel free to talk soccer smack in the comments section).  

Knowing anything about soccer isn’t important for this next tip, but what I should explain is that FCB is what is known as a possession team. Their approach is based on having the ball longer than the opponent. The idea being that if the opposition don’t have the ball they can’t score. Sometimes the game plan works, sometimes it doesn’t. But at its best, they keep the ball, everyone is happy, and everyone is involved. Except, of course, for the goalie.

Because his teammates spend the majority of the game kicking the ball back and forth to each other, the FCB goalkeeper is often reduced to napping against the goalposts, counting the number of hotdog vendors in the stands, or simply ruminating on the intricacies of the Spanish tax system. A very boring life, except that is, on those four or five plays during the game where the other team manages to steal the ball away and come thundering towards his goal post to try and score on the counterattack.

To make a long story short, a goalie’s career isn’t defined by constant action. A goalie’s career is defined by being able to maintain concentration and readiness through the down times, so that when the time to shine does finally arrive, he or she will be ready to go.

A photography career can feel much the same way. Depending on your business model, you can either be shooting an assignment once a day or once every few weeks. Or, perhaps you’re only really busy during a specific “season” and spend the rest of the year handling the books and marketing. Whatever your specific niche, when called to action, you have to be ready to act. You have to be ready to excel. You have to be ready to shine.

Lack of recent assignments is no reason for not keeping your skills sharp. You have to keep your imagination alive. Your dream job may seem to come up completely out of the blue, but that is no excuse to get rusty in the interim. Your job is to stay ready.

It’s Not About You: Part Deux

Ever get a random email from someone who may or may not be a legit business asking you for your rates to shoot an incredibly vaguely described “job?” Ever spend hours constructing the perfect bid that falls well within your client’s budget and industry standards, mentally start booking the plane tickets to the shooting destination and planning the shoot, only to be told at the last second that the creative director decided to go with another shooter?  

It’s hard in such a personalized business not to take these things personally, but the simple fact of the matter is, sometimes it really is them and not you. Sometimes, those sketchy emails are just people fishing for your rates. Sometimes that bid you desperately wanted but failed to book was not a result of an inappropriate quote or artistic deficiency. Sometimes, the client really did just go another way. Odds are they are triple bidding those larger projects in the first place, so for every winner, by definition two shooters are going to lose. You can’t win them all. No point in spending your energy second-guessing yourself, just get back on your feet, dust yourself off, and get back in the game.

It’s OK to Say No

Stop saying "yes" to things you don’t want to do. Of course it’s tempting when trying to make a living to chase after every opportunity with a dollar sign attached to it. And sometimes you have no choice. But oftentimes, you do.

Accepting work that you’re not passionate about may seem to make sense at the time, but in the long run may do more to tarnish your brand than to build it. You want to be proud of the work you put out into the world. You want to give 110 percent. And while, yes, I’m sure you personally give 110 percent no matter what the assignment is, art has a way of revealing the passion of it’s creator.

When you’re not fully invested in creating an image, your basic skillset will, no doubt, still carry you to a certain point. The resulting image will be adequate, and you will gain the reputation of being an adequate photographer.

But when you’re fully engaged in the subject and can bring your full heart and soul the process, you will find yourself infinitely more powerful behind the lens. You can truly create something special. The more you can afford to do this, the better your collective work will be and the more the market will view you as a special photographer. The more special they consider you to be, the better your reputation. The better your reputation, the better your business.

Again, there is no question that some jobs are simply that: jobs. But remember that we got into this crazy business in the first place to create something amazing. And, when possible, focusing on what you're passionate about can have benefits far beyond a short term paycheck.

Emails and Snail Mails Are Nice, but Nothing Beats a Handshake

Neither the me of 11 years ago, nor the me of today, will ever be confused with being what you might call “a social butterfly.” Just barely above the level of hermit, the idea of going out face to face, shaking hands, and testing my social etiquette is rarely my first choice when I wake up in the morning.

But when it comes to conducting business, there is simply nothing more effective than meeting a potential client face to face. An email can link them to your work, a printed mailer can give them something pretty to pin the their wall, but absolutely nothing beats giving the client a chance to put a face to the name.

People work with people they like. It’s hard for them to like you if they don’t know you. While your portfolio is a reflection of you, it still doesn’t paint a complete picture. You, camera or not, are awesome, so give the client a chance to see that.

Don’t Trip Over the Final Hurdle

The first cold email is a chance to make an impression. That promo piece you sent is a chance to make an impression. That first contact at the networking event is a chance to make an impression.  

Any first impression, or first eight since studies show that’s how many it takes for a client to start to recognize your name, is a chance to make an impression. But so is your response to the email they send inquiring about your availability, the creative call, the preproduction process, the shoot, delivering the images, addressing customer concerns, and follow up emails. As a photographer, there are endless opportunities to make a positive impression on a client. The more positive impressions you give them, the more likely they are to hire you now and in the future. But it only takes one bad impression to kill a relationship.  

It only takes tripping over one hurdle along the line to kill the momentum of even the swiftest competitor in the race. So take care with every point of contact, even the seemingly innocuous ones, to show the client that you are professional, personable, and the right man or woman for the job.

There Is No Silver Bullet

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that there is no one thing you can do that will suddenly put you on easy street. A career in art is a day-in and day-out battle. Always on the brink of failure, always on the brink of success; It’s a full commitment.

Much like people who spend their lives trying to find that “magic” diet pill that allows them to get ripped without exercise tend to never lose the weight. It is instead those who shut up, go to the gym, have an honest look at their diet, and put in hard work who actually get lasting results.  

The same holds true for photographers. Learn from others and take advantage of every tool at your disposal. But the most important thing is that you show up every day and do the dirty work. Give it your all and you will succeed.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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If you wrote a novel, I'd read it. Eloquently stated article with great pointers.

me too!

Thank you Samantha!

Thanks DJ :-)

it is very true that people want to do business with people you know! So important to get out there and network!

If I were to write my younger self a letter of my lessons learned, lesson #1 would be 'don't dodge their effing teeth'. Seriously, my first portraits were, like, all the dodge.

I know just what you mean. My first tries at Photoshop were... not good :-)

Killer post, and something I should probably read every couple months for a reminder

Thanks Jeff

Lovely article. Well written. It speaks to so many of us in the industry

Thank you Glynn

One of the better business posts I've read on here, some good points.

Thank you, Jay.