Over my years as a fashion photographer and retoucher I’ve made contact and had conversations with countless other photographers. I’ve watched some of them flourish and some of them flounder. Those that rise above the competition and make their mark in the industry seem to embody a certain set of traits or characteristics that help in their success.
Having spent my last week filming a fashion and beauty photography tutorial series with PRO EDU - which will incidentally be sold here at the Fstoppers store - I got to spend some time with Rob Grimm, an industry veteran for over 25 years. Rob and I had lots of great conversations - including a long business segment in the tutorial itself - and it was great getting to observe him in a day-to-day setting. While I’ve had a pre-existing set of common traits in mind for a while now, talking to Rob really crystalised some of them for me, so I’d like to share these observations with you.
This is quite possibly the most important trait of them all. As I've talked about in the past, photography is an up and down game. We have moments of joy and moments of hardship. Sadly the difficult times are often the more common of the two, and it’s those with the strength to rise above them that carry on day by day. When you start out in photography as a hobby, the hard times are difficult to imagine, but as you progress into making it your profession, adversity begins to creep in. Industry veterans have not only endured those difficult times, they prepare for them and learn to deal with them time and again.
Perseverance is a daily necessity at any stage in a photographers career. Building a successful photography business is a 5-7 year process, it’s not an overnight success story. During that time you’ll fail repeatedly, you’ll doubt yourself repeatedly and you’ll find yourself pulled in a million different directions. Once you’ve honed in on what makes you different from all the other photographers out there, focus on leveraging that uniqueness and stick to your guns through all the roadblocks that come your way. Figure out a plan that will help you to survive those difficult early years and forge ahead. Remember that it’s OK to be the contrarian. When everyone is doing one thing and you’re doing another, you open up an opportunity for yourself. Believe in your strategy and put your all into it. That being said, it’s also important to constantly re-evaluate and measure progress. As business owners we tend to develop tunnel vision and fail to recognize a losing hand. Let’s call it 'validated perseverance'.
While being stubborn or hardheaded is often viewed as a negative trait, having just the right amount of it is essential in the photography industry. We’re constantly confronted with people asking for lower rates or free work, impossible deadlines or over-inflated expectations. You have to have your wits about you, know the value of your work and not be taken advantage of. Be firm with your clients and be able to explain what they are getting in exchange for their money. Although photography appears to many as a homogeneous service, it’s up to you to explain why it isn’t and why they need to hire you.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that work doesn’t just come to you. You have to be out there daily, hustling for business and staying at the top of people’s minds. Even those that have been in the business for decades are still spending the majority of their time nurturing clients, cold calling and bidding on jobs. As your business grows, things get easier but they never get easy.
Although there are a share of rockstar photographers that believe they’re above everyone else, the majority of successful photographers are humble and reserved. They celebrate their successes but take nothing for granted. If their genre of photography is collaborative, they pay tribute to the people around them and know how instrumental that team is to their success. Be confident but bever let your ego get the best of you, and always appreciate everyone that has supported you throughout your career.
Grace under pressure
As photographers we strive for perfection. We want our images to look great but things don’t always go according to plan. We get frustrated and get down on ourselves, and we're sometimes quick to blame others. Too many photographers get angry, wear their emotions on their sleeve and put everyone on edge. Photography is a game of problem solving, whether it’s on a technical level or with the people around you. Things don’t always work perfectly right out of the gate, but getting angry or flustered is rarely the solution. Remember that you’re the leader of your team. Your emotions rub off on everyone else and can set the tone of the entire shoot. There will be shoots where all you can do is persevere and play the hand you’ve been dealt. Just know that you’ll live to shoot another day and you’ll gain the respect of those around you by rising above the challenges.
While there are varying degrees of crazy, photographers really take the cake. I’m not referring to the put on a straight jacket and get yourself tested sort crazy, but more of the reality distorting sort. Frankly, anyone that takes on an artistic endeavour as their profession has to be a little bit crazy since it’s a gigantic leap of faith. This goes for painters, musicians, actors and many others. We have to be a little bit blind to the challenges ahead and crazy to believe that everything will somehow work out. It’s that craziness that drives us ahead and has us trying new things when others say it’s stupid. It’s crazy that got you into this field and it’s staying crazy that keeps you believing.
Although I’ve talked at length in the past about improving your photography and rising above challenges, it’s really the above traits that lay at the foundation for it all. As much as we spend time working on our craft, we have to expend equal effort working on ourselves.