A decade seems like a bit of a milestone to me, from my first camera to working as a commercial food photographer. There have been lot of lessons learnt along the way.
I thought I would try to highlight a few of these to help others avoid the same mistakes that I made. Or if you are going through them right now, at least know you are not alone. There are mountains of articles about specific lighting set ups and camera reviews, but there is a lot more to photography than that.
I have put this in first as I genuinely think it is one of the most important factors to getting good at photography. And I am going to be very blunt about it, as I wish someone had done the same to me when I started out. Most of us can not lead the artist lifestyle of boozing, drugs, parties, and still be good photographers, or good anything. I know there are some big names out there who obviously rock this, but for most of us, it is a slippery slope into average work.
A good diet, exercise regime, and generally looking after yourself with a stable sleep pattern is so important. My girlfriend has spent years telling me that I need to look after myself. A few years ago after a health scare, I stopped partying, started exercising at least once per day, woke up at the same time every day, and generally looked after myself as most of us look after our cameras. The difference in my work and the way my business was going was huge. I am now slightly embarrassed about the way I treated myself in the early years of my career.
If you work as a wedding or event photographer, being overweight and unfit will not help you get that shot when you are on your feet for 12 hour + days. In the studio, being unfit means getting fatigued before the end of the shoot. It matters so much to look after your body, if you already do this, you will understand, if you don’t, like I didn’t, it is hard to understand. But please take my word for it, your photography will be better if you look after your mind and body as if you were an athlete. It will be better than any camera or lens upgrade.
You need equipment. However, you do not need to read a gear review every week. If you need something, it will be absolutely apparent that the job can’t be done without it. Then from this it should be pretty obvious what you need to buy. I spent so much time in years 3-6 worrying about kit, watching YouTube reviews, reading gear reviews DXO markings (completely useless), and having general anxiety about needing more or better kit. Unless you physically can't get the job done, you probably own more than enough kit that is perfectly good enough for you.
It is all about learning, but you need to learn the right things. To start with for the first 3 or so years, this is probably very much the nuts and bolts of how a cameras work.Then digging deep into composition, story telling, color, post production, lighting, and finally, really getting into your niche. For me, that is food. I need to know as much about food as I do about photography. I need to know how the food should look, smell and taste, what food is in fashion, how the food is being presented, what props are in fashion, which color backgrounds and settings are in fashion, and how to work them all together. The learning never stops. I test shoot, read, and watch to learn when ever I am not shooting for clients. If you thought your degree and or masters degree was hard, it is nothing when I compare how much harder I have had to work at photography to become a commercial food photographer in the UK.
You will surround yourself with similar people, who are at a similar level and have the same shortcomings. This is a natural state to be in. But you need to try and reach out from time to time. Everyone will know of photographers in their area who have been treading water for years in the same group of peers. Every few years you need to do an audit of who you are spending your time with and look at where they are and then where you want to be. Once you are stuck in your bubble, it is hard to break out so you need to really want to progress in order to break those familiar habits. Photography social groups are great fun, but they can quickly become bubbles, so make sure you are always aware as to where you are, where you want to be and who you are spending most of your time with.
Photographers Are Friends, Not Rivals
Seeing other photographers as rivals is a bad idea. Most of us have very different niches, so the chances of us actually competing over work toward the point in our career where we know what we are doing, is pretty slim (granted that when people are hiring you because you have a camera, this wont be the case). Most of my jobs have come because photographers have talked me up when an agency wants something they can't do and a lot of the ass saving that I have been on the receiving end of have been thanks to friends in photography. And I like to think that I have bailed out and sent work to plenty of photographers to. Try to keep friendly with everyone in your area, it will do more good than harm.
Find a Niche
The phrase "Jack of all trades and master of none" really rings true in photography. With the entry point being so accessible, you need to dig really deep down into a niche within a genre in order to really be noted. Being able to compose, expose and nicely color grade wont set you aside from someone with a smartphone. Once you have a niche, finding clients is far easier and clients finding you become more frequent. The people who phone me have already decided that I am what they want because of the niche I work in. Where as when I was doing all sorts of work, it was far harder to convince people to book me or to find clients. Work out what you love and just follow it.
This is a biggie. When I decided back in 2009 that I wanted to be a professional photographer, I assumed it would take a couple of years to get to where I wanted to be. Boy was I wrong about that. Eight years in I was just about finding the niche I wanted to really go all in with and then ten years into my career I am just starting to shoot worldwide campaigns for some household names and I think I am about another 10-15 years from where I want to be in my career. I took a few years to realize how hard I had to work if I wanted to actually get anywhere close to my goals, but once I was in the full swing I really realized the depth of learning required. 10 to 16 hour days 6 days a week for a good 5 years before I really knew what I needed to know. I think this is something that is really brushed over in photography. It isn’t about going to group shoots and reading camera reviews. You need to sit down and learn. Patience will really help you stay motivated and focused on the long term goal.
I hope that this advice is of use to those of you still struggling into the first decade of a career. For those have been in here for longer, please send me some advice in the comments.