One of my favorite books of all time is a little gem by British advertising legend Paul Arden “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.” I read this little book about once a year, it’s funny, insightful, and full of advice and inspiration for creative people.
Paul Arden was a creative director at London advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi. He was responsible for some of the most famous British advertising campaigns of all time including British Airways, The Independent, Silk Cut cigarettes, and even Fujifilm. As this book demonstrates, his genius was not restricted to advertising, but covered the whole creative process.
I’ve taken 8 quotes from the book and interpreted them in a way that you can apply to your photography.
“Your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have.”
What is your vision of where or who you want to be? What is your ultimate photographic aim? To sell prints? To create zines? To start a blog or YouTube channel? To become a Magnum photographer? To write for Fstoppers? Start taking steps towards that goal today. Everything else that you’re doing is a distraction.
If you want to become a portrait photographer, look at what skills and equipment you’ll need to succeed in that objective. If you’ve always wanted to enter a competition, publish a book, or sell your work via a gallery, map out a plan over six or 12 months on how you can get there.
“To be original, seek inspiration from unexpected sources.”
What can photography from different genres teach you? Probably a lot more than you realize. Study another genre that you’ve previously never been interested in. If you’re a street photographer, look at fashion photography. If you primarily shoot black and white, look at color travel photography.
Pick up some newspapers or magazines in your local library, or go exploring on social media. What can you learn from trendy wellness magazines? From photographers on Instagram or TikTok? What do they do well in terms of how they present their photography? What can you learn from them?
“The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.”
Often when we make mistakes on a shoot we have the inclination to beat ourselves up. Whether we’ve missed focus, knocked the ISO dial to a crazy high setting, or just haven’t got the best out of our subject.
But failure is part of photography, just as it’s a part of life. Here’s an interesting reminder: Scientists fail all the time, they call their failures "experiments", and they’re allowed to fail multiple times before success.
Next time you have a disappointing set of images, take a close look at them. What worked? What didn’t work? What can you do better next time? Learn from it — it’s all part of the creative process.
“Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.”
Over the last decade, social media platforms have indoctrinated us to expect an avalanche of feel-good likes and comments every time we post a photo. It feels fantastic to hear this of course, but it doesn’t encourage the most useful kind of feedback: constructive criticism.
The real value is by asking others how you can make something better. Maybe you could ask a photography friend for an honest opinion of your work, or what do you do best? Ask them to be brutally honest about your strengths, and what you could improve. It might surprise you, and it might just make you a better photographer.
“If you get stuck, draw with a different pen.”
Working in old-school advertising and PR, Arden meant this point literally. Instead of using felt tip pens for layouts, he tells the story in the book of when he used watercolors for a layout, and the client was so impressed they increased their advertising budget significantly.
“Change your tools, it may free your thinking,” says Arden, and that point can be made with photographers too who are in a rut.
If you always shoot with a wide-angle lens, why not give a telephoto lens a go? If you haven’t shot a roll of film for years, dig out your old SLR and restrict yourself to 36 frames. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Sony or Canon, ask to borrow your mate’s Fujifilm or Nikon. It may just free your thinking.
“Don’t be afraid of silly ideas”
We all get mental blocks, the way to get unblocked is by losing our inhibitions and stopping worrying about being right. Arden suggests two tricks to get rid of creative blockages
The first is to do the opposite of what the situation requires. That could mean shooting sports with an iPhone, or portraits with a point-and-shoot. The second is to look out the window and whatever catches your eye, make that the solution to your problem.
“Give away everything you know and more will come back to you.”
Do you have an idea of how to do something or solve a problem? Tell people. Arden says that if you give away everything you know, it forces you to replenish and look for new things.
What does this mean for photographers? Share your knowledge. Get together with others and talk about what you do. Be generous and helpful to others. Generally, I think this is something that photographers do pretty well, though, of course, there’s always room for improvement.
One of the highlights of my year has been starting my Matt Loves Cameras YouTube channel. The most rewarding aspect is when people take the time to comment that they enjoyed the video or that I have inspired them in some way — truly humbling.
How could you make more of a difference with the knowledge you have?
“You are the magic.”
In the book, Arden explains that you shouldn’t hand your work over to a supplier hoping they will produce the magic for you, rather, you are the magic.
The same could also be said about photography: don’t expect a new camera or new lens or a location to bring the magic by itself. I’ve seen some pretty ordinary photos taken on some very expensive cameras, and I’ve seen some extraordinary photos taken on cameras that most people wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.
Remember: You are the magic!