The Worst and Most Inconvenient Ingredient for Success in Photography

The Worst and Most Inconvenient Ingredient for Success in Photography

Every day there is an unreadable amount of content that purports to tell you how to achieve success in everything from Instagram to business, but there's one important ingredient that is often missed out. And it's inconvenient.

TL;DR: Lest I be accused of burying the answer, the ingredient is "time". Read on and I will unpack it. Or don't, I'm not the boss of you.

Any regular readers of mine (there are at least two if you include my mother) will know I consume a lot of content on business and photography. I read multiple books per month, listen to podcasts, watch YouTube channels, read articles, and of course, all the content that electronically sweeps across my desk as editor here. I started this habit as a way of improving my knowledge of business and the business of photography. Starting my own company was daunting and my first steps were taken with little but debt and fear. 

Sometimes I wonder if knowing what you don't know is worse than fully fledged naivety, particularly with regards to your own mental wellbeing. The more I learned about the industry and running a business — whether a sole trader or otherwise — the more I realized how utterly unknowledgeable I was (and as much headway as I've made, this is still largely the case.) The more I worried about that, the more I forced myself to consume, which lead to uncovering more that I didn't know; repeat ad infinitum. But there was one ingredient to success that lurked in the dark. I knew it was there, but most people didn't seem to want to talk about it: time.

The reason the notion of "time" playing an irreplaceable and fundamental role in success is so repugnant to most content creators is that it doesn't play into the instant gratification message that sells. If you're looking to start a business, you're not going to click a video that says "you're probably going to struggle for years," but rather one that says "here's how to get more clients than you can handle right now!" And so the touchy subject of time is avoided in lieu of more immediate and obviously impactful actions.

This isn't to say that there aren't things you ought to be doing for quick returns, or that they don't work; they do and you should be doing them. What it fails to account for is the bigger picture. The best way to describe what is going on when you're starting out in photography and looking to achieve any level of success is Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point". Summarized briefly, all of your work in all the different ways you've been doing it will at some point reach critical mass, and you will stop feeling as if you're peddling up hill and begin reaping the rewards without the requisite level of grit and graft previously required. To get to this point takes work, yes, but it also takes time. As Gladwell puts it, "The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire."

It sounds as if Gladwell is discussing exclusively the virality of certain concepts, but the discussion isn't distinct from you and your work; you want your product (you and your photography) to go viral within your area of the industry or beyond. That sort of chain reaction takes time. Incidentally, writer here at Fstoppers — Scott Choucino — wrote just this week about the role of patience in advertorial photography:

This all takes a long time. I would say 6-10 years for most photographers to go from wanting to be a commercial photographer to shooting their first big advertisement campaign.

That's just not something you want to hear when you're at the early stages of your career, but it's information you need. It isn't meant to discourage you — your journey may take off much quicker — but rather to comfort you. No matter how much work you put in, how incredible your work is, and how tirelessly you self-promote, there is no substitute for time. That hard work will pay dividends, it will no doubt raise the ceiling of your career, and it will undoubtedly bring you levels of success earlier, but time is still the necessary and inconvenient ingredient for success.

You might ask, if there's nothing that can be done about needing time to succeed, why bother thinking about it at all? It is a reminder — and a crucial one — that your hard work and efforts are not for nought. There are many times when you're lurching off the back of a 90 hour week without a proportionate level of compensation in your pocket when you wonder if there's any point in going on. That doubt is the enemy of time and patience, and must be identified and put into greater context. If you spend a week straight eating healthily and doing exercise and immediately review its impact, you could be fooled in to thinking it's not worth the effort.

They say people overestimate what they can achieve in one year, and underestimate what they can achieve in five years, and I can't imagine truer words spoken when it comes to the business of photography. So wherever you are right now, and where ever you are aiming, keep up that hard work and self-improvement, and know that it will come good, just don't lose faith because it isn't matching up with a timeline you made up. Our timelines for ourselves are inevitably harsh, unrealistic, and tragically influenced by other people whose stories we know nothing about.

What seldom discussed tips for success can you share? Leave them in the comments below.

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Rod Kestel's picture

Quite right, methinks. Ever tried to write a book? Ludicrous amounts of time.
But I am so last century, now there's an app for that. Click, swipe, done.

Alex Yakimov's picture

It is true for everything. There is other thing, everything that didn't take much time to reach might loose its value in the long run.

Peter Mueller's picture

Well stated; and you are right, mostly no-one wants to talk about it as it is, umm, "inconvenient."
Funny story... I took on a new career about 15 years ago, the coincident demands of which no longer afforded me the time to continue my fine-arts painting passion (one I was seriously invested in as a watercolorist). I chose at that time, in order to maintain a creative outlet, and under the mistaken impression that it would be far less time consuming, to pursue photography. The problem quickly self-identified... as an artist, the time commitment was different in the detail, but no less than before. I do not regret the decision to switch however.

Jeffrey Conley's picture

Wonderful premise for an article. Thank you! The concept that "things take time" represents a truth that can be difficult to hear. Do what you love, add time, and amazing things can happen. Perseverance is an important skill/ attribute vital towards success in any field. Today, we seem to crave perpetual validation to a degree that ends up holding us back, not letting time work its magic.
One small criticism, as a site dedicated to photography, why no credit or caption for the lead image of the tree silhouetted against the night sky?