How do you rate success in photography? Maybe, it’s earning a living from it. That isn’t a goal for everyone, but valuable lessons about successful photography can be learned from the business of professionals.
The above image wasn't a success. I shot it years ago, and it was my first attempt at trying to capture it. I've since returned many times, trying lots of different setups from different positions, depending upon the angle of the full moon-rise in relation to the island, and since successfully achieved images I am pleased with.
Success is a personal thing, the achievement of one’s goals. This could include self-acknowledgment of an improvement in your photographic skills or just capturing a bird that has eluded you for years. But what people often infer from the word “success” is that there is recognition, in one form or another, from others.
It’s difficult to measure in photography, as it means different things to different people. Is it about selling your work or services? Maybe. But perhaps that isn’t important to you at all, and it is all about how many social media likes you get that count. Success in photography could be achieving a formal qualification. Or, perhaps, it is about the people from your community visiting an exhibition of your work or possibly having your photo book published. It's certainly not about owning the latest, top-of-the-range camera.
Although these steps are what I have learned from first starting and then running a photography business for several years — and I hope anyone starting out on the road to professional photography find them useful — they are also intended as things to consider for amateur photographers who want to find success in their art.
Building up a good reputation takes good old-fashioned, honest service. This, of course, means you should deliver quality photography, but it’s also much more than that.
Years ago, in a previous role, I used to interview and employ people. When I received an application, I did in-depth searching of their online presence to discover who they were. If I found they were affable, happy, kind, and helpful, then there was a good chance they would survive the first sift. Confined to the shredder were those who posted on Facebook images of them being drunk, expressed extremist views, and those who made unkind comments online.
I still do the same today. If I am going to buy a service or product, I find out as much about the seller as I can. If I am going to help their business to succeed, and as customers, that is what we are doing, I want to make sure that they are deserving of my help. Similarly, I interview other photographers for the local papers and now Fstoppers too. That helps boost their reputation. First, I check who they are and what they are like before agreeing to write about them.
You can be sure that others will do that to you too, including your potential clients, your followers, and people in your community.
Because of the internet, your reputation is more widely accessible now than it was for anyone else in history. Therefore, if your online presence includes posts or comments that are unpleasant or derogatory, you can be sure that it will have a negative effect on your reputation and, ultimately, your success. Get them deleted, apologize, and start being kind instead.
2. Faking It
Nearly 10 years ago, a photographer became well-known in the industry for the wrong reason. In their high street shop window, they passed off other people’s work as their own. Apart from being a breach of copyright, it was dishonest. Even today, if you Google their name, the top result is the Reddit discussion about their plagiarism. Any short-term boost to their reputation from them claiming others’ great photos as their own was destroyed.
In business, your reputation is reflected, but not made, in your online reviews. You can fake it, and it’s both easy and tempting to create verified fake reviews, even for non-existent businesses. In researching this article, I managed to create one; no, I won’t tell you how! Don’t try it. It’s dishonest. Additionally, it doesn’t take much to see through them. At best, they discourage potential clients, and at worst, they will be exposed publicly and, consequently, ruin your reputation.
Furthermore, although some politicians prosper in the short-term on their notoriety for lying, it will quickly ruin your clients’ faith in you.
3. It Takes Time
There seems to be a modern trend of people expecting immediate success without working for it. Consequently, there is a lot of disappointment.
In the first two years, your aim is to survive. Most photographers I know, at first, have a second income from a part-time job to help them stay on their feet. In years three and four, if you are doing well, you will get by. From year five onwards, you should thrive. Establishing a name as a successful photographer takes much longer.
Even the big names in photography took decades to get their name recognized because it took that long for their photographs to be at a high enough standard to be considered great. Those that think their photography is great after a couple of years are most likely deluding themselves. It takes a lot of hard work over years. There were no free passes, no shortcuts, and no faking your way to being a successful photographer.
4. Promote Yourself
If you believe that your work is good enough, then promote it. Fans of your work don’t walk through the door if they don’t know you are there.
Selling yourself is possibly one of the hardest things to do, but it does reap dividends. If you find it too difficult, you are not alone. Even posting your creative work online can be daunting because of the trolls who might attack it. One thing you can try is getting a friend to do it for you or, better still, partnering up with another creative talent and then promoting each other’s work. It’s much easier to walk into a gallery, or approach a publisher saying: “here’s someone’s work that you should take notice of” than “you should notice my work.”
5. Seek a Professional Opinion Before Jumping In
There is an acquaintance I once followed on Instagram who had around 2,000 other followers. All their photos suffered from rudimentary mistakes, not the least being massively over-saturated. About two years ago, they announced that they were turning professional. They left their job and, within six months, had disappeared from the photographic community.
Most people in the world are nice. Consequently, they will always tell you that your photos are fantastic, even if they are not. They will click the like button on social media and even comment: “great shot!” They will do this either out of kindness or maybe because many folks are poor judges of quality.
Maybe your photographs are great. Maybe they are not. The best way to find out is to seek out and, if necessary, pay for an honest and supportive critique of your work.
6. Be Aware of the Money, but Don’t Make It Your Goal
I make my living from photography, but it’s not why I am in business. I am not a professional photographer because I love marketing, advertising, selling, invoicing, balancing books, and submitting my tax returns. I am in business to provide photographic services and help people become better photographers. Those are the things I love doing. I'm in business because I love it. The money comes as a bonus.
Of course, businesses do need to make a profit, and many business courses will give you the impression that making money is all important. However, the moment your business starts to exist with the main aim of making money is the moment your reputation will start to suffer. The success of your business is how much joy it brings you, not how much money you make.
7. Work Hard
A lot of aspiring photographers want a free ride. I regularly get requests from complete strangers who expect me to support them in learning how to go into competition with me. Some ask to be second photographers on wedding shoots, others want to help me deliver courses, so they can learn everything I teach for free. There are those that I do help, but they are those with whom I have built up a working relationship with and whose photography and personality I like, and who already put in a lot of effort.
Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said that your first 10,000 photos are your worst. That was in the days when film came in rolls of 24 or 36 and hours would be spent poring over the images in the darkroom. Putting this into the context of digital photography, when photographers produce images in the thousands and many don’t take the time to closely examine and analyze them, that figure probably should be in the hundreds of thousands.
Being successful in any field requires study and practice. For me, it’s a never-ending process. I am learning new things about photography all the time, and there is always more to discover.
Perhaps, after all, success is an unobtainable goal.
That's interesting. Do you run a business in the States? I don't use an accountant, just learned to do bookkeeping and fill in a tax return! For a simple one-person business, it's easy to do here and is all that is necessary. As for an attorney, I've not ever used one in business, and see little need to as I stay on the right side of the law. Happily run my business for many years without needing either. Maybe things are different in the States, over here people are less litigious. I agree with #1 though, and there are lots of fully-funded business courses here in the UK.
Payroll..? For one guy..?? I’m presuming J.D. you are stateside, TurboTax is fast and easy and I do get your point about outsourcing as much admin as possible. But when you start out, as Ivor’s article is aimed at people building a business, you don’t have the money to do that, but you have lots of time. So pick up some skills until your business gets busy enough to pay others to do that.
And educate yourself: read books about photographers, about photography, about design, about art in general, visit galleries. Well written article, thank you Ivor.
As a wildlife photographer, most of the things that I need to do to get better photos have nothing to do with my camera or lenses.
Traveling to more of the places where the most abundant, most cooperative, most interesting animals are is the single most thing that will yield better images
Studying the species that I photograph and spending more days and weeks afield observing the animals will also have a great affect on the quality of my imagery.
You are absolutely right, Tom, and that is seen in your photography too!
Yep, these days you need many additional skills beyond your core competencies (such as being good at photography) to be 'seen' by others. You can put your money to work when you make them to acquire people with these additional competencies and till that time, it's on you.
Thanks for the great comment, Rhonald. You are right, anyone who is self-employed has to take on lots of extra roles, and so to do amateurs. I guess it's been the case in the past too, but the requirements were different. Before the days of the internet, we needed skills like physical publishing, cataloging, chemical handling, and organizing events were more prevalent than they are now.
I liked number 5. Whenever I comment on a photograph I like, it means I like it. I never post fake likes to make someone feel good. It’s dishonest. Rather, if I don’t like a photo I simply don’t comment. When I like a photo, most of the time I will provide an explanation that will help the photographer. When you teach design, it’s expected.
Thanks, James. That's a valuable lesson. Sorry for the delay in replying. Getting that balance right between bolstering someone's confidence and helping them improve with constructive criticism is a difficult path to tread. Lots of people get it wrong, and many offer criticism when it isn't asked for.