Top Photographers Reveal Their Most Valuable Mistakes

Top Photographers Reveal Their Most Valuable Mistakes

As a British person, I have an innate talent for moaning, queuing, and observing humour about our ever-changing weather. One spring morning last month, while wiping the snow off my sunglasses and mopping the sweat off my brow with my thermal gloves, I began to ponder the first of this talent trifecta. One rich vein of moan material is mistakes, and being conscious of my miserable inner monologue, I attempted to shift the focus to something more useful.

Of my mistakes, particularly pertaining to photography, which has been the most valuable? Which mistake has yielded the greatest crop of information and made me all the better for it? I came to a conclusion and then an idea occurred so suddenly I nearly choked on my crumpet (fear not, I had an emergency flask of tea on hand). I gathered my thoughts and straightened my tweed suit.

“How would top photographers answer that same question?,” I wondered aloud to the Queen, Hugh Grant, and the cast of Downton Abbey. We all agreed that it would be enlightening, and so, I embarked on chatting with top photographers and extracting their answers for your reading pleasure.

Joel Grimes

When it comes to the business side of surviving a 30-year career as a photographer, I often say there are 3 things that you must possess. Treat people fairly, be honest, and never make a promise you can’t keep. The first two seem to come relatively easy for me, but the latter is something that I catch myself and see others making all the time. Since I am often an overly optimistic person and want to please my clients at all cost, I will agree to conditions that are unrealistic. For example, in delivering the final retouched images to a client, I often catch myself agreeing to a delivery date that in the end forces me to work all-nighters to fulfill my commitment, which generally takes the joy out of the process. The alternative would be to fail on meeting the deadline and thus risk damaging my client relations. 
I have learned it is better to set realistic expectations, even at the risk of not getting the job, than it is making a promise I can’t keep. Because the odds of a client coming back after a failed promise is a hundred times less than if you simply said: “I’m sorry, but I just can’t fit your in at this time.” Part of the problem is simply the fact that being self-employed, you are afraid to risk turning down a job. But remember, it is easier to keep an existing client than it is finding a new one. So, cultivate a mindset that factors in a business model for the long haul, not simply to make a quick buck. 

Image used with permission from Joel Grimes.

Lindsay Adler

When I started to grow my network and career in NYC, I would spend countless hours a week sending out relatively generic emails to potential clients. I hoped and praying that if I sent out enough emails, eventually I might catch someone's attention. Unfortunately, most of this time and effort was a waste. Instead, I should have focused on a much smaller list of potential clients. I should have done my research on companies and individuals, written personalized emails, followed up with phone calls and promotional pieces. 

By writing an email that shows you truly understand a company, have personal interest in the individual, and have done your research to become knowledgeable, you greatly increase your chances of someone responding to a message. Furthermore, when following up with a phone message, your memorable email will make it more likely to get a call back or some sort of personal connection. The mistake of endless generic emails gave me the impression that I was working hard and expanding my network, when in fact, it was just filling my hours with empty redundancy! 

Image used with permission from Lindsay Adler.

Benjamin Von Wong

I was once at a photo shoot where the hair stylist got so mad at me for not having any food or drinks at the shoot. After the shoot ended, he wrote this extremely angry email saying that I didn’t have the right to use his photographer, or rather, I didn’t have the right to use my own photographs unless I paid his day rate, as he felt completely disrespected and insulted. Since that day, I’ve always brought food and coffee to my photo shoots, and it has made the world of difference.

Image used with permission from Benjamin Von Wong.

Jimmy Nelson

It’s probably two mistakes, but they are opposite ends of the spectrum. The first mistake was when I was very young. I was pretending to be a war photographer or photojournalist and putting myself in lots of dangerous situations thinking I was going to change the world. I wasn’t earning a lot of money, but I was using the title to compensate for my insecurities for not having any education or post-graduate study. Then, somebody asked me to do a corporate job photographing some factories and their products for four months. That money would have enabled me to travel without the need to earn anything for two to three years. I said no; my ego was too big. I was in my early twenties, and I didn’t want to be seen as a corporate photographer. I was a photojournalist. and I was going to change the world. even though I wasn’t earning any money from that and I wouldn’t for a long time. That was a massive mistake.

The second mistake is one of time and knowledge and learning. When one is younger, one feels like “if I do A it will lead me to B.” As I got older, I realised that if one trusts situations and just let any doors open, although one might not know the end destination, what can happen in that process can be very exciting. An example of this: I have been invited to have a private exhibition at Sotheby’s in London this summer, which is quite prestigious. That has only come about because I was invited to do a talk in a book shop in a small town in Holland. It was on a Saturday for 20-30 pensioners, and I was only going to receive a bunch of flowers for it. My wife said: “you have more important things to do on a Saturday than to travel halfway across the country to talk about yourself and come back with a bunch of flowers!” I said that I was going to go anyway as I felt it was something I had to do. At the end of the talk, a younger lady came to thank me for coming, as it was her niece’s book shop. She also happened to be one of the directors of Sotheby’s, and the fact that I bothered to come to her niece’s bookshop on a Saturday for nothing prompted her to want to do something for me in return: an exhibition at Sotheby’s next summer.

(I spoke to Jimmy at length in the end, and there was so much wisdom I couldn’t include in this article that I am going to write a follow-up with more of his advice, so keep an eye out!)

Image used with permission from Jimmy Nelson.

Lara Jade

The biggest mistake I made as a photographer was expecting too much too soon. The first few years of business are for investment, and with any creative career path, it takes a while for your eye to develop and to understand taste. This comes with time and emerging yourself in the industry long enough to realize how things work and how you relate to your work personally. Wanting too much too soon results in disappointment. You have to be excited about creating and producing shoots without the pressure of monetary gain. Most successful artists are always seeking the next thing, the next opportunity, the next passion project. They are never satisfied. 

Image used with permission from Lara Jade and Oscar May.

Aaron Nace (Phlearn)

Early in my photography career, I tried to do everything. I thought I had to be a portrait photographer, a photojournalist, a fine-art, and a landscape photographer. By diversifying my portfolio, I would get good at many things and be more desirable to clients. When it came to business, I took jobs wherever they came in. I had to make ends meet, and I found myself trying to focus on too many tasks. 
It turns out you can't do many things very well; you wind up becoming mediocre across the board. When a client is looking for a portrait photographer, they want a great portrait photographer, not someone who shoots mediocre portraits but also shoots mediocre landscapes and macros. In a quest to do everything, I wound up doing nothing well. 
I decided to change my strategy to become more focused. I would only shoot that which truly interested me, and I would put my heart into my work. Only then did I start to produce photos I cared about and spent the time to make them great. Find something you love to do and focus on just that. 

Image used with permission from Aaron Nace.

Emily Soto

Going too heavy on the makeup with a model, I had an agency call after I had sent the photos wondering why I had let my makeup artist put so much on a fresh face.  It taught me to scale back and look at each model's natural beauty; less is always more!

Image used with permission from Emily Soto.

Amanda Diaz

The biggest mistake that I have learned from as an artist, photographer, and business owner is that sometimes, people can and will take advantage of you as a person and your business if you let them. When I first started out, I was very naive and trusting and didn't want to upset anyone or hurt feelings. So, I said “yes” and “it's ok” and “dont worry about it” many times.

There were times here and there (many times, actually) where people both personally and professionally would overstep their boundaries with me, expecting too much and/or just had little to no respect for me or my time. I had to learn the hard way when to say "no" and stand up for myself. Some examples would be things like: people I knew personally expecting free photos, which resulted in a few friendships ending shortly after.

When I did finally create some type of outline and verbally tell them you have me for X amount of hours and you will get X amount of images, there were still some clients wanting more images than what was agreed upon or expecting me to stay for additional hours, which was again not previously mentioned or asked of me. Then, I would stay, smile and say, “oh it's ok,” and then feel angry and used for a week straight at them and myself wishing I said "no." Ive had people underpay me and insist that I told them it was that amount when I know that was not true.

The reason these things happened to me multiple times in the beginning is because I had very little business knowledge on dealing with clients (and friends) when I started out and never bothered to create outlined service agreements or contracts, Just some emails and a release form I assumed were all I needed. Also, I had no mentor either and was too stubborn to seek advice. I'm sure people are reading this and thinking: “why the hell didn't she have a contract or service agreement?” I'm not quite sure. Also, I felt like it was so formal. Oh no, I don't want to hurt their feelings; I don't want to make them sign something. They'll think I can't trust them, but guess who was hurt in the end? Me. And so, because of that, thankfully, I have learned to be fairly clear on my expectations and my boundaries before, during, and after any type of project or photo shoot.

I would say even in the early stages, even if you are not an official business, create some kind of an agreement that is signed and read over with the client, especially friends and family. Also, make sure you always set clear boundaries, stand up for yourself when needed, don't be afraid to say “no” when you feel pressured or uncomfortable about something. That's probably the best advice I can offer to new photographers. This may sound silly to some because they may just be better at business, but I'm sure it will resonate with others because this is something I wish someone sat me down and talked to me about when I first started out. I wish someone did; it would of saved a lot of stress, tears, and frustration.

Image used with permission from Amanda Diaz.


I purposely left this question as open as possible and I offered no limitations with regards to minimum or maximum word counts. I was a little concerned that I might get the same answers, but that was not at all the case, and there was a staggering variety of wisdom. It might be just me, but there is comfort in the mistakes of the very successful — like living, breathing proof that nobody rises unscathed.

What's your most useful mistake?

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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VonWong has the best advice out of them all I think.

I got the pleasure of shooting with him a little while back and I can stay there was plenty of coffee and snacks to go around. He is an awesome person!

I think his advice is sound. (though it does crank up the cost of doing TFP shoots)

At the same time though, if I encountered an entitled brat like that the last thing I'd want to do is agree to their demands. The job of the photographer is to take great photos. If he/she chooses to feed you, be grateful, if he doesn't feed yourself. Such petulance.

Agreed. Bring food, make happy clients and co-workers :)

Here's my mistake for what its worth.

I worked for 6 years as a studio assistant for a company in London. We shot everything from Watches and Jewelery to full room sets. My mistake was moving to the south coast and thinking that my working experience was enough to cover the type of work that this market required. Boy was I wrong! I had to start from scratch and learn a whole new raft of skills.

Hi Trevor, is this because in south coast doesn´t have watches and jewlery photo work??

To an extent that was the problem. The work was more location based and involved a larger PR/Editorial element. I managed to find work as part of a design agency specialising in the electronics industry.

I made the mistake of buying a Canon ;)

Your comment does not add to the discourse meaningfully and is just baiting others . You're welcome to leave at any time.

What a great article - great idea - great execution! Thank you.

Great stuff! I think most of us can relate to at least one of the misstakes. For me it's Lindsay Adler and Aaron Nace (Phlearn)

Amanda Diaz's advice is the most relevant to me, I haven't even begun to contemplate a real functioning photography business yet. For me, being the most rank amateur out there, I somehow didn't notice my camera had changed my record setting from RAW to JPEG! Luckily, I only had one photo project for a friend which turned out fine (whew!). It taught me to go though all my camera settings before and after every shoot and take nothing for granted.

Amanda Diaz talking the Truth! And it will resonate with alot of photographers/ creatives out there! By far the best commentary on the subject!!

This is the best article I have read in a while. All of the photographers have great advice.

But what Amanda Diaz wrote really hit home for me. There are clients that will take advantage of you and try to squeeze the most work out of for lowest price. Learning to be assertive is crucial to all working photographers.