With more information available to us than we could consume in a thousand lifetimes, we're forced to do what humanity has always had to do: look at what has been successful for others and emulate it.
In a recent conversation, I mentioned that the act which has had the most profound impact on my business is reading business books. It's obvious when you condense the idea down to a sentence, but before I had started, I couldn't imagine it being much use for a photographer. There were few books on the business of photography and how to run one successfully, and I suspected (incorrectly, might I add) that generalized books about business and entrepreneurship wouldn't be applicable. Fortunately, I gave it a go, saw the value in it, and reading became a staple of my working life. This got me wondering: what was a profound and impactful change I made in my photography that propelled me forward the most?
It certainly wasn't as obvious as reading was to business skills, but that might be because it wasn't as recent. I tried to trace back to the earlier days when I would chat with photographers on a sub-forum of a car website, through to somewhere in the middle before I decided to turn it in to a career. It seemed a linear gradient, but in actuality, it was made of peaks and troughs of improvement. The first few examples of improvement were from challenges, and they definitely had more value than I appreciated at the time. The one I regularly undertook was a monthly competition to shoot a certain theme like "nature" or "dark." There was enough diversity in these monthly challenges that I would have to put a lot of thought into what I was going to shoot and how.
The other challenges that improved me — albeit to a lesser degree than the competitions — were ones of consistency with shooting. Much like the familiar 365 challenges where you have to take a picture every day, I completed shorte- term examples like 10 images shot and edited to present all in one day and so on. Practice is always valuable, but how much value it holds is contingent on a number of influential factors. In the book Grit, by Angela Duckworth, Duckworth studies what it takes to get to the top of an area, particularly a sport or an instrument. One fundamental truth that all successful people exhibited was consistent and deliberate practice. It's the "deliberate practice" that is relevant to this question. That is, the act of practicing is not enough in isolation and instead should be directed and thoughtful; practice with goals for specific improvements.
These were all minor peaks, however, and none of them felt like dramatic catalysts of positive change in my photographic ability. I wondered about other areas that have helped me to some degree or another, like having a network of talented photographers as friends and colleagues, writing about photography regularly, and immersing myself in the industry. Suddenly though, it dawned on me. "Oh dear," thought I, "I know what it is." There was certainly a tipping point where the quality of my images and my command of the tools at my disposal started snowballing quickly and I'd finally figured it out. But it was disappointing.
500px. Yes, the photo-sharing website. You see, I joined it very early on, before it was particularly successful. What started as a replacement for Flickr, which had become tacky, messy, and dull, became something else; it became a focus for my photography. You see, every day, I would browse the Popular pages for each genre, and most importantly, the Editor's Choice section. I would look at the handful of photographers who were featuring regularly at the highest level and the bar was set; I wanted to — no, I had to get to that standard. Looking back now, I can see what I was probably aware of back then too: my work both technically and creatively wasn't good enough. So, I started getting ridiculous. I went from taking pictures of attractive people I knew against walls with little to no posing instruction to staging elaborate scenes of chaos. My first real attempt at such chaos made the front page on all genres, got selected for Editor's Choice, and was subsequently featured in several galleries in major cities.
I realized then that although plaudits and praise were nice, the feeling of pushing myself to see what I could create was much better. Sometimes that comes in the form of eye-catching shoots, hopefully creating memorable imagery. But more often for me now, it comes in the form of creating commercial imagery that is excellent at its job: showing off a product. My most recent example of pushing myself was a 50-frame macro stack where every constituent image that made up the final file was also a long exposure to capture the green glow of a watch's powerful lume. I knew doing a long-exposure macro stack would be time consuming, awkward, would require complete control of surroundings and light so not to affect the reflection, and would be tricky in post. There were a plethora of considerations to avoid common pitfalls with this type of commercial photography, and my life would have been easier just taking a shot and cropping in. But I wanted to push my boundaries whenever possible.
So, my answer to the question is 500px in the widest scope, but more specifically, it's the desire to push boundaries and challenge myself where ever possible. It's something most people talk about doing, but few actually follow through with. Even today, I have to check whether I'm coasting and force myself out of my comfort zone or set myself a difficult task.
Now ,I want to pass the question over to you. You're welcome to name anything from a lens to a complete philosophy, just comment what it is, and how it improved you.