Photographers: Why You Should Give Away What You Know

Photographers: Why You Should Give Away What You Know

A few months ago, I was out at dinner with a couple of friends of mine. We had each just finished up our respective shoots and had settled into a booth where the conversation inevitably turned toward who we shot, where we shot, and whether or not we were happy with the in-camera results (we were). That night, we spent the better part of two hours eating, drinking and sharing our techniques with one another.


As I drove home that night excited to get home and try some new techniques I'd just learned, I thought back to a conversation I overheard about a year prior between two photographers. The first, an older photographer, was chastising the second for showing a younger, less-experienced  photographer how he had edited a set of photos. "Why would you  tell someone how you edit your work?" the first photographer said. "That's giving away your bag of tricks!" The second photographer seemed taken aback for a moment, as if he'd never considered what he was  doing to be such an offense. "I never thought about that," he said. "I was just helping someone out..." The conversation carried on for a little while longer, until the second photographer agreed he shouldn't be giving away and/or sharing his "bag of tricks," especially in a industry which relies so heavily on one's own creativity.


Shortly afterward and still with that conversation in mind, I found myself looking through some of my old photography albums. Focus, tone, fashion, and composition issues aside, I realized was that while I was coming up, someone else (of lot of someone else's for that matter) had shown me their technique and their secrets. The more I looked through my work, the more I saw how it had evolved and I knew that reason for that was because I had so many others who took the time to share their techniques with me. The feeling of indebtedness was overwhelming. And it was one that I immediately felt needed to be paid forward. But how?

The opportunity arrived later that month, when  a younger, less-experienced photographer contacted me and told me that he loved a couple of the photos I'd recently posted. He asked me what my process was for shooting, retouching, and toning, and not only did I explain to him what I'd done and how I'd done it, but I went ahead and gave him the presets I'd created for that particular set of photos as well. In effect, I'd given him all the tools he needed to recreate my work. Sharing my technique in such an open way was a first for me, and it was one that I found to be really quite liberating; knowing that someone could reproduce meant that if I wanted to keep my work fresh, I need to learn something new.

I realize giving away secrets and/or technique is never going to be a popular idea. Photographers, on the whole, tend to be very protective. I’ve found that if you ask someone about the settings they use, the teams they work with, the spots at which they shoot, how they edit and retouch, and even the gear for which they shot a particular photo with, you’re more likely to get a blank stare than an answer. And I think that’s wrong.


As a working photographer and as someone with a desire to keep my work current, almost nothing stands out to me more than the fact that when we keep our technique so close to our vest, we're prevented from learning something new. Personally, I discovered that when I was trying to keep my techniques a well-guarded secret, my work neither grew nor changed. I was stagnant and everything I produced all seemed to have a similar, almost lifeless feel. But in giving it all away, in emptying my bag of tricks so to speak, I was forcing myself to push forward. I’m convinced that our competitive spirit sees giving everything away as a challenge and thinks, “someone else knows what I know, someone else can do what I do. it’s time to step it up, it’s time to learn something new - it’s time to take my work to the next level.”

To be honest, the thing of it is, there really are no secrets and there aren't any tricks.  This is not the ethereal world and we're not wizards (sorry). We each use what we know and have available to us at the time. And when our style and our tastes change, we move on to something new. What we're giving away isn't secrets and tricks, they're just shortcuts we've learned, mostly likely from someone else who told us their technique in which we tweaked to make our own.


It's simple really; when we give away what we know and we allow ourselves to start over. As artists, isn't it our job to keep pushing forward? Shouldn't we constantly be looking for anything which will bring about a new style, a new look, and/or a new direction which keeps our work fresh? And shouldn't we, when we're feeling comfortable with all that, give it away and start all over again?

I think we should.

Besides, it’s 2014. We have the Internet. People are eventually going to figure it out.

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Zach Sutton's picture

I've started doing some screen casts with other photographer friends I have while we're editing. It's really interesting to see how others work their files, and let them see how I work mine.

The end result is that we're both refining our techniques and making ourselves better photographers. The fastest way to grow the talent of the community is to share what you know.

Great article buddy!

Grant Beachy's picture

Great article. I used to hold my secrets close, but I've been trying to open my fists and share what I know, and it's been so freeing. We'll see what it does for business long-term, but in the short-term it's opened me up for friendships I would never have made otherwise.

Great great post, and we agree wholeheartedly

We firmly believe that you find inspiration by inspiring others.

Thank you for sharing.

I use duct tape on photo retouching

Very good idea. Helping someone by telling them how you achieved certain results really can't hurt you at all, nor does it make you foolish for doing so. A) You never know, that person may send a client your way or B) may even become a client .

If i ever learn some secrets, I might give them away.

Noam Galai's picture

Great post man!

"Besides, it’s 2014. We have the Internet. People are eventually going to figure it out."

I love that haha. It's so true. Most of what I have learned as a photographer has come from googles searches and youtube.

I made a point early on to share as much as humanly possible. Best business practice I ever made :)

Love this article. I'm a firm believer in sharing what I know with those who ask. I've learned a lot from others, and it's just good manners to pass it on down the line. Plus, there have been those I've helped who have been grateful enough to refer others to me (weddings they couldn't take, subjects they don't specialize in, etc.) I don't think I've ever regretted sharing knowledge with other photographers - it just increases the quality of the industry as a whole and makes ME want to grow and learn even more.

Andy McRory's picture

I have found that sharing a technique, whether in music or photography, forces me to re-exam it while sharing. Maybe I can think of a better way while I'm explaining and then apply that to my own work. If I didn't share, those "tricks" would be frozen at v1.0

Totally & sometimes sharing helps us enhance the same techniques with others ideas too.

Exactly. Every time I teach something, whether it is woodworking, photography, cooking, whatever by verbalizing my technique I am forced to reexamine it and frequently think if something else. Also the questions I get asked make me think of things in different ways.

There's a huge difference between sharing your techniques with your friends at dinner, and the whole world. Your friend is most likely as established as you, and not going to try to use your techniques to improve his technique for personal gain.

michael andrew's picture

Curious why that is a bad thing?

Who said it was a bad thing?

Kurt Langer's picture

The people I originally have shared with are sharing now what they know with me. Brilliant.

I totally agree with this post. I recently had a shoot with a fellow photographer and after shooting a few portraits I began to edit them as well as retouching one and basically walked him through the entire process of what I was doing. He was totally amazed and appreciative of what I'd been showing him and the funny part about is that all I was doing was dodging and burning, which I learned a while back from awesome photographer, Ahmed Klink. Nobody can duplicate a photographer's vision even if they can have a similar "look". Anybody who knows how to use Google can learn just about any editing technique on the planet so why not help somebody out? They may teach you something, as well.

Sean, I agree totally. Techniques can enhance my craft but without the vision it's all crap. When I look back over the scope of my work, I see my vision evolving. Saying technique is what makes us or breaks us as working photographers is rather like saying my camera is the reason I take great photographs. Technique and camera are tools only. When asked about her favorite photograph, Imogen Cunningham said this: "Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow."

Adam Rasheed's picture

Great article. Sharing your best stuff has SO many benefits, not only does it challenge your creativity and push you forward as an artist; but it also helps people recognize your generosity and return the favor in some way.

Whether or not you believe in Karma, helping people out does benefit you as well.

Patrick Hall's picture

It's interesting, giving away everything I have in creating Fstoppers has directly allowed me more freedom, success, and happiness than anything I would have gained by not sharing. I can't imagine it any other way now.

"Ask and ye shall receive"

On the one hand, it's generous to be open about information and make it accessible to others. On the other hand, photographers should remember that other people need to earn something in order for them to consider it valuable. There is an unbreakable connection between accessibility and value. The more accessible you are as a photographer, the less valuable your information becomes to others.

The point is that it's OK to expect people to earn the information that you give to them.

Patrick Hall's picture

What theology have you been reading Mike?

Just my completely opposite way of looking at things...I answer most every question any other photographer ever asks, but I don't, for the most part offer information without being asked.

And I never ever ever ever ask other photographers how they do stuff. As a general rule I don't look at other photographers work, and I don't have any interest in how they do it.

I think of photography as an art...the more you look at other people's work, or learn from what they did, the less of what you do is YOURS.

So I don't steal the opportunity to invent something from someone else, by telling them stuff they don't ask to know, and I don't ask anyone ANYthing :))

Another thing to consider.....there are about a zillion people calling themselves photographers right now....and not to knock anyone, but the vast majority never EVER do anything original. They hunt around the net, around FB, around Pinterest for ideas, and just copy what they see.

Most things that photographers do.....settings, lighting, posing, retouching.....are things that MOST other photographers also do....we're not talking about UNIQUE things, or original anything. Just a bunch of people copying off each other.

It really is a different thing, when you think up a DIFFERENT THING. If you're doing ORIGINAL WORK, of your own design and inspiration, you're not doing the "ART of photography" any favors by explaining to people looking to just mimic the creative ones.

I think, if anything....we have epidemic of mimicry.....

I don't mind answering technical questions, even artistic questions that apply to GENERAL PHOTOGRAPHIC KNOWLEDGE. But it's unreasonable and unfair to ask another ARTIST to explain how they do something....


You just need eyes to see how they do something. There are no secrets.

Lol, believe that all you want.

Patrick Hall's picture

Don't you fear though that if you don't look and study other photographers then the "art" you put out is really just a lesser form of potential greatness?

Maybe I'm being entirely too cynical here, but imagine if you played guitar and you told yourself that you weren't going to listen or learn any of the riffs, licks, and chords of other guitarists because it would block your own vision of guitar playing. Unless your mind was truly filled with amazing music the world has never known, I would find it hard to believe that you would produce anything that is really worth listening to. Every great musician has studied, copied, or flat out stolen other musician's work only to produce a unique fingerprint that is often times better than their predecessors.

I think all good art follows this pattern. Why reinvent the wheel when you can study what others have done (many of them whom will be much better at it than you ever will be) and combine your influences to create something unique to you?

It just seems hard for me to believe that any artist can have so much original art pouring out of them that they do not feel the need to study or at least check out what else is out there. Plus if you are a fan of good photography, wouldn't it be a waste not to appreciate others who share your own passion?

Why re-invent the wheel.

The person who invents the wheel is an artist. The person who watches him make the wheel and then makes the wheel again, is NOT an artist.

You're actually making my point for me. If your only goal is to produce, by any means, beautiful things, then there is nothing wrong with copying other people.

If your goal...and mine to make beautiful things only to whatever degree I'm capable by myself, then you make an effort to avoid learning from others.

It's like this......I only want to WIN the hundred meter dash by myself, or do the best I can....BY MYSELF. I have no interest in owning a gold medal for the hundred yard dash if someone pushed me down the track.

You don't have to think that way, but I'm 100% happy, 0% frustrated, and never ever ever at a loss for things to create using my own vision.

It's EASIER to accept the premise of the original article. Because most artists copy and mimic, it's easier to believe that's "ok" than it is to adopt a "no copy" policy. My way is HARDER, so I understand why so many people have a hard time understanding it.

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