Tis the season to not only reflect on your photographic year just passed, but also to do some planning for the future.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This past year was, shall we say, less than ideal for almost all of us. Why on Earth would you ever want to look back on such a 365-day monstrosity unless you were absolutely forced to by an evil man like me in some sort of updated "Clockwork Orange" situation? Well, the truth is that we often learn more from the difficult times than from the times when all things work out as planned. And, whether last year was your best ever or one to forget, there are always lessons to be learned that will help us as artists and as business owners well into the future.
And while the year isn’t quite over, it is around this time every year that I start to evaluate my performance in the previous 12 months as well as plan for the next dozen to come. Because I’m a Virgo with mild O.C.D., my reflection time usually takes the form of a very detailed written performance review. I go line by line, reviewing all the objectives I had set out for myself the previous December/January and see how the reality met the planning. I like to set unrealistically high expectations, so I don’t always hit my projected numbers. That’s okay. They are meant to push me rather than be easily obtainable. But, in the process, it forced me to take a hard look at the areas where I still need to make progress. Or, for the areas where I exceeded expectations, it reminds me to celebrate.
I won’t take you through my entire arduous journey of self-reflection, but instead suggest that you answer the following questions for yourself. The answers to these questions are for you only (or perhaps your business partner), but taking the time to answer them can help you plan for an even better new year as well as crystalize the lessons you learned throughout the year.
How Have You Grown as an Artist?
Photography is not a destination. It’s a journey. Whether you think of yourself as a hobbyist shutterbug or a seasoned professional, every time you pick up the camera, it is a chance to grow. Much is made of achieving technical proficiency, but the truth of the matter is pretty much anyone can achieve technical proficiency given enough time and effort. If your only objective as a photographer is to be able to expose an image properly and in the sharpest fashion possible, then that type of mastery is available to anyone with a basic understanding of mathematics and access to any camera made in the last century. But, presumably, you took up photography because you had a deeper story inside of you that you wished to tell. You don’t want to just create a shot that’s in focus, you want to create something that knocks people’s socks off. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of trick that you can learn by just watching YouTube tutorials. This type of thing only comes about as a result of long hard hours of practicing your craft. It’s a result of both trial and error. As your skills grow, your confidence grows. Like all surges in confidence, this may even cause you to take a few foolish risks. Sometimes, those work. Sometimes, you fall flat on your face. But that falling on your face only ends up teaching you more, making you better, and thus refilling your confidence again.
I make a lot of photographers defining their voice. It’s important to discover what makes your artistic voice unique and sets you apart from the veritable sea of incredible photographers against whom you will be competing. The more you can set yourself apart and know who you are, the better chance you will have of being successful. But Act Two to that story, which rarely gets told, is that even once you have done all the hard work to define your voice and hollow out a little space for yourself in the marketplace, you’re still not done. You must continue to grow and evolve as an artist to stay fresh and relevant. You have to continue to dig deeper even when you think you’ve already scraped the bottom of your creativity barrel.
Twelve months might seem like a short time, but it’s an eternity in a creative career. How have you spent the previous 12months? Compare your work in January to the work you are creating now. Have you grown? Do you notice any changes in your aesthetic that are notable? If so, are those changes for the best? What do you think are the reasons for the shift? How does that shift help to further differentiate your work? Are the changes something you can build on, or are they just specific to the type of assignments you took on this year? Generally speaking, we don’t have to try to make ourselves evolve as artists. Our art is tied to who we are as human beings. We grow as a person, we grow as an artist. But when it does happen organically, finding out how to best capitalize on it intentionally can put us a step ahead.
How Has Your Business Grown?
Like many creatives, I used to work a day job. I absolutely hated my day job. As in, I still have nightmares about having to go back to one. But, the one positive thing about a day job, if you can call it that, is the consistency. I call it monotony. But there is no denying that when you sign up for a day job, more often than not, you know exactly what awaits you from day to day. If you go an entire year without your daily routine changing, without any corporate mergers or your favorite boss getting transferred away, it’s usually a good thing. You still sit at the same desk, make the same salary aside from the contractual two cents per hour annual raise, and your mortgage is still getting paid. It’s not exciting, but day jobs are about stability. And stagnation is good for stability.
Stagnation, however, is not good for running your own business. I don’t mean to say that all photographers don’t dream of a steady stream of income. But what sets a career as a photographer apart from a career as a corporate accountant is that you have to be constantly in search of those additional streams. You might have an anchor client. But that anchor client is also subject to the whims of the marketplace. What happens if they go out of business or a new creative director comes in and wants to “freshen things up” with a different photographic style? You might be king or queen of a certain market segment, but what happens if that market segment begins to contract? How diversified is your business to be able to weather a potential storm?
Judging business growth is where the numbers come in. I’ve written before about the benefits of writing a detailed business plan. But my annual review of my own business plan each year is where I set out the hard numerical objectives I wish to reach in the following year. Let’s say, for example, I made $100 the previous year. This number is clearly for example purposes only. But, let’s say I made $100 and have decided I wanted to grow revenue by 25%. So, naturally, I needed to hit $125 by the end of the year. It’s simple. Did you hit your number or didn’t you? But you also need to look at other measurable signposts as well. Have you expanded the number of shoots? Or, perhaps you didn’t expand the number of shoots, but you expanded your profit margin on your shoots? Is a large percentage of your income derived from one source? Does this leave you vulnerable should the unexpected happen? This year, above any other, should remind us that the unexpected does happen. Are you adequately prepared to handle sudden shifts?
Of course, this information is not just meant to help you either flagellate or congratulate yourself. It’s information you can use. If you see that you are overly dependent on one source of income, you can set a hard objective for the following year to derive X amount of your revenue from new sources. Or, if you notice that you are not generating nearly enough income from each individual job, you might want to rethink your pricing structure and grow your profit margin.
This is the question of where numbers come into play. Holding steady isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially this year. But, over the long term, what are the objectives you want to reach and how exactly do you plan to get there?
Are You Maximizing Your Potential?
Whereas the last section was the most objectively measurable question you can ask yourself, the idea of maximizing one’s potential is by far the most user-defined. We all have standards. Some of us have higher standards than others. Some of us have lower standards. But the expectations we set for ourselves shouldn’t be based on other people’s definitions of success. You know deep in your heart what you are capable of, and you equally know whether or not you are putting in the work to achieve it. I don't mean talking about putting in the work. I don’t mean curating the perfect vibe on social media to give everyone the impression that you are putting in the work. I mean late at night, when there is no one else watching or at the crack of dawn, before all your competition is even awake. Are you pushing yourself to reach the heights of your potential?
Sure, you have a knack for this photography thing. But are you really digging down deep and not only resting on talent but putting in the practice to develop that talent? Are you spending your time complaining about what you would create if you could only afford the right equipment, or are you spending your time getting every last drop out of the equipment you can afford? Are you spending time on internet message boards talking down the work of another photographer because it makes you feel better about your own shortcomings? Or are you being brave, pushing your boundaries creatively, then sending it out into the world unafraid to be judged yourself? Are you wasting time dreaming about the life you want? Or are you living a life that will help you achieve your dreams?
These are truly questions that only you can answer. The responses can’t be gleaned from photography books or from an Fstoppers article. These answers can only be spoken after a long look in the mirror. And lest you think that I am calling you out for not working hard enough, do know that the honest answer to this question for almost everyone is a resounding “no”? Not because we aren’t trying, but because we are all far more capable than we give ourselves credit for. And that applies to you too.
So, as you go back over the last year and answer the above questions for yourself, know that even this year of such ebbs and flows was but a single chapter in your story. And your finale has yet to be written.