I don’t know about you, but I never planned to become a photographer. It kind of happened by accident. I have always considered myself more of an explorer, traveling the world in search of adventure. Shooting photographs was just my way of telling the story of the places I visited. But pretty soon, people started calling me a photographer, and that was that. Shortly after, I quit my day job and found myself trying to make my way as a full-time travel and portrait photographer. That was six years ago, and although I have learned so much over those years, these are the five things they never told me about becoming a photographer.
1. You Will Never Find the Perfect Camera Bag
If you are new to photography, you may well still be under the misguided impression that photography is the constant pursuit of perfect light. But, as I soon came to realize as a newbie photographer, photography actually seems to be the constant pursuit of the perfect camera bag. I’ve tried them all. Big ones. Small ones. Backpack ones. Messenger bag ones. I’ve even tried camera bags that weren’t camera bags at all. And yet, despite many bags coming close, I have never found the perfect bag that met all my needs, allowing me to carry my day-to-day gear in a way I can actually get to easily, but that isn’t the size of a tank or doesn't have so many pockets and straps that I get mistaken for a base-jumper every time I pick it up.
Of course, in truth there is no single perfect bag, because there is no single situation in which it will be used. So far, for everyday walking around purposes, the Billingham Hadley Pro is the closest I have found that meets my personal needs. It isn’t cheap, but it seems to get the job done, and right now is probably my most used bag. But despite the quality of the Hadley Pro, it is just good enough. The search for the perfect bag still goes on.
2. No Matter How Good You Think You Are, You Will Still Make Stupid Mistakes
If there is anything I have learned since becoming a photographer, it is this: never underestimate your ability to make stupid mistakes. From dead batteries and dead spares to missing the “decisive moment” in the middle of a photoshoot because I still had the lens cap on, I’ve made just about every silly mistake there is. Of course, any professional worth their salt will take steps to avoid these situations. But, even if you get it right 99 times out of 100, that one time you do make a mistake will be exactly the moment your so-called professionalism is most on show. It’ll be in front of clients or when you are under pressure to meet a deadline.
I used to obsess about making mistakes. Now, I accept that the creative process is not an exact science, and sometimes, things will mess up. The trick is to learn how to adapt to the situation, allowing you to continue even if you have messed up.
3. You Will Hate Almost Every Photograph You Ever Take
OK, perhaps you won’t hate every photograph you take. But, as with any artistic pursuit, a photographer's style and creative personality will change over time. And their latest style will probably be their current favorite. As a result, when new photographers look back at previous photographs they have taken, the temptation to start messing with them can be overwhelming. The quality of their photographs will not have changed, but their perception of what constitutes quality will.
For the longest time, I suffered from this. I would find myself going through my portfolio, re-editing and re-processing photographs that had previously been “finished” to bring them in line with whatever my current style was at that time. Of course, over time, this too would change, and the vicious cycle of re-editng would begin again. It took a concerted effort to learn not to fall into this trap. That is not to say I never go back and re-edit photographs, but now I do this sparingly and only with good reason. The artistic process should be allowed to grow and change over time. Part of that process is learning how to accept each photograph's place within the timeline of your creativity.
4. People Are Going to Ask You to Photograph Their Children/Wedding/Pets
It doesn’t matter what style of photography you specialize in, to most of the general public, a photographer is a photographer. If you are able to pick up a camera, they will assume you have the automatic ability to photograph just about any style at whim. As a result, you are going to find yourself routinely asked to photograph family portraits, corporate events, and all manner of other assignments. Of course, that’s fine if those are the styles of photography you lean towards. But what if you are more at home shooting landscapes in the middle of the desert than photographing your neighbors' children in the middle of the local park?
Twice I made the mistake of agreeing to such requests: once shooting a friend's wedding and another time, a series of family portraits. Although I just about managed a passable effort at both, in neither case did I produce work of the standard I would normally aspire to, because I had very little experience in those kinds of environments. Having experience with a camera doesn’t mean having experience in every situation it can be used. Every photographer will have their individual specialty and area of experience.
Today, I still receive almost daily requests for these types of shoots, but now I am very clear that this is not where my skill lies and politely point them in the direction of other photographers I know will ultimately produce a much better result.
5. Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) Is a Real Thing
We’ve all been there. The camera we have happily been using for only a couple of years has just been updated. The revised model is almost identical to its predecessor, but it has just enough new bells and whistles to allow us to justify to ourselves (although maybe not to our partners) that the expense of this shiny new toy is worth it. And so we buy it. The photographs we took before were perfectly fine. The photographs we took after were perfectly fine. But with our shiny new toy, we were able to shave five seconds off our workflow in order to achieve that perfectly fine photograph. And that is Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) in action.
When I first started out in photography, it was certainly a syndrome I suffered from. Heck, I still suffer from it today. I have no idea why I bough the 28mm fixed lens Leica Q when I shoot 35-50mm 90 percent of the time. I would find myself obsessing about how the latest and greatest would help develop my craft, blaming my lack of success in building a body of work I could be proud of on the equipment I was using rather than the way I was using it.
But, cliché as it might sound, the more I grew as a photographer, the more I came to appreciate that it is never the camera that creates a photograph, good or bad, but rather the person behind the camera. A camera has no soul, no emotion, no sense of personal style. It is the responsibility of the photographer to bring those attributes to a photograph.
With the rate of technical advancement we are currently seeing in photography, there are many genuine reasons for upgrading our equipment. But we should never delude ourselves into succumbing to G.A.S. At best, this equipment will simply make us more efficient photographers. The quality of our images will still be down to us.
Ultimately, becoming a photographer is a process and hindsight is a wonderful thing. But these are five of the things that stand out when I look back at my early days as a photographer. What about you? What do you wish they had told you when you first picked up a camera?