The real kicker about knowledge is that most of the time, you don’t know what you don’t know. You run around, casting a net and trying to catch information, but often, you miss important stuff — sometimes, more than once. I cast my net all over the shop when I started photography; I watched videos, read articles, listened to lectures, watched documentaries, practiced daily, and took feedback as if divinely delivered. Nevertheless, my net caught some information later than I’d have liked. Here are seven things about being a photographer I wish I’d known earlier.
Ask him. Ask her. Ask them. Write an email asking. Stop someone in the street to ask something. Ask again if you don’t get a reply. Ask again if you do, and it’s a no. I sincerely wish I had made peace with asking for things much, much earlier. A simple example would be when I went to spectate Motorsport at the Palace some years back. I photographed it from the crowd, desperately trying to compose shots and struggling while watching photographers in high-visibility vests strolling around close enough to the action to be killed instantly. I envied them. A few months before the following year’s event, I sent an email to the organizers asking to sign the rights to my life away and don a reflective jacket too. They said yes; I shot the next event track-side, and unexpectedly, I made enough money from sales of the photos to cover all expenses and make a tidy profit. Now, I shoot it every year.
This opportunity would have never presented itself to me organically. In a similar vein, I approached a model I wanted to photograph when I was very inexperienced, fully expecting her to want money or to even laugh in my face. She said yes, and we’ve worked together in various capacities ever since. The same story is true of my first product photography job, and now, I’m a watch company’s go-to photographer. The risk versus reward in asking for what you want is unfathomably biased toward reward; get asking.
2. Back-Button Autofocusing
I had heard of it, but I simply didn’t see its worth. It seemed to me to be an alternative with no real benefit, like some sort of in-camera hipster setting. How wrong I was. If you haven’t tried it, I implore you to give it a whirl as your control over focusing will improve tenfold. This is even more the case if you like to shoot wide open and need to lock that precious slither of focus onto someone’s eyes.
3. Image Sharpness
This has to be the most overvalued thing outside of London properties. My obsession with image sharpness came from two different sources. The first was my involvement with a community of very talented macro photographers. Their images were crisper than deep-fried foil and I was jealous. The second was Lee Jeffries’ portraits of the homeless that boasted unparalleled facial detail. I spent hours pawing through Lightroom, taking the "Sharpness" slider revoltingly high and then dragging the image to Photoshop to beat its lifeless corpse with an "Unsharp Mask." So ruthless I became in my pursuit of clarity that, ironically, my images were anything but clear. In fact, my early photographs are completely unrecoverable without the raw files. Image sharpness is a false economy and conversely, is very different from image quality. If you want your images to appear sharper and clearer, step away from Lightroom, and concentrate on the light in the room. That barely made sense, but it sounded like a nice turn of phrase. The salient point is that light is the greatest provider of image sharpness, not post-processing.
4. Start a Pinterest Board of Inspiration
I knew early on in my photography journey that I was all about the
bass portraiture. However, a few years passed before I decided to start compiling my "favorites." I have browsed 500px, Flickr, and Instagram for portraits for years. I did and still do it habitually every day. Then, one day, I saw a street portrait of a stranger in Germany, and I desperately wanted to remember the image. So, I began a "portrait of the day." This led me to create a website about portraiture, and my daily portrait became "Acufocal Portrait of the Day." As well as tweeting them, I began to pin them to a Pinterest board. This had an almost immeasurable benefit to my photography career and life. At the point of writing this article, there are 819 portraits on that board, and it is a constant source of inspiration for me. Moreover, it also allows me to see trends in my own tastes, and through analytics on both my site and Pinterest, I get to see what other people gravitate towards, which is invaluable.
I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to be the guy who tells you "your network is your net worth" while mopping his sweaty brow with his ill-fitting suit sleeve and using his free arm to refresh LinkedIn. However, its importance cannot be overstated in photography. I’m not going to harp on about this subject, as it is a well-trodden path, but people hire people. The opportunities I get through word of mouth are far more than any other source.
6. Don't Do Work for Free
Well, sometimes do work for free. I just wish I’d known then what I know now about doing work for free. Ok, that was as useful as lips on a woodpecker. Allow me to elaborate. At first, I did all work, even if it was free to build my portfolio and get my name out there. Most of the work I did had no impact on either of those things. Then, I went cold turkey and declined all unpaid work, and I actually missed out on a promising opportunity through stubbornness. What this section ought to be called is "determine the non-financial worth of a job before accepting or declining." I recently did some work for free that has led to a steady flow of paid work that I’m almost certain would have not come about had I declined working this particular gig unpaid.
Actually, if it isn’t a little too revealing about me, I wish I’d treated the concept of failing differently in and outside of photography. I was always petrified that I would screw up a shoot, and sometimes, that fear drove me to decline jobs I think — in retrospect — I wouldn’t have failed at. Then, almost ironically, a phrase that helped me overcome this fear of failure also helped me fail for the first time. I read the phrase "no one ever feels ready" in an article about how taking a leap into the unknown of your career can be daunting, but the secret is that no one ever feels ready to take the next step; you’ll always feel under-experienced, under-prepared, and as if you’re lucking your way through life. With that sound bite of sage wisdom still ringing in my ears, I accepted a job in an area I was unfamiliar with for a new client whilst still very early in my photography career. The job was so far removed from my area of expertise that I really wasn’t ready, and I failed at producing the sort of image they were after. Looking back, I’m not sure I did fail, but it felt that way at the time, and it was a gut-punch. However, I learned to create mood boards with clients before shoots and suddenly saw the worth in failing. Not all failures are catastrophic, but almost all are rich in information on how you can improve. To quote the philosophical titan, Michael Jordan: "I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed."
What have you learned about photography that you wish you had known earlier?