5 keys to success for photographers (Hint: it’s not about gear)

When I was first transitioning from newspaper photographer to commercial photographer, I had a huge ‘Ah-hah!’ moment. I was speaking to Jimmy Smith, a family friend and commercial photographer with 30 years under his belt.  Jimmy told me, flat-out: “You wanna know why only something like four percent of photographers make it in this business? If what we did was about photography, that number would be higher.”

Profound words that I’ve never forgotten. This, coming from a talented photographer who is truly an artist, and who works with global corporate and publishing brands.

Jimmy was speaking to the intangible, unsexy parts of the photography business (or any business). Behind the scenes of any successful venture, you’ll find the folks practicing certain habits and principles which have nothing to do with the widgets they sell or the service they actually provide.

As a former photo editor and a photographer who makes his living making images, I’m approached by students and others aspiring to make a living with their passion. As an outsider it’s easy to see whether they are heading towards success or retreating from it. In my opinion, it all boils down to good habits in a few areas (this ain’t rocket science). Successful photographers:

Show Up — I’m amazed at how often people don’t show up—for mixers, workshops, for meetings and other opportunities available to them.  When they do show up, they aren’t prepared to put their best foot forward. I’ve gotten a lot of work because I simply was the guy who showed up, was present and presentable.

Follow Up — When anyone contacts me for a internship, a job, or feedback, I do what I can to help. I may have to put them off for a short while until I can give my full attention. I’ll put the ball in their court by asking them to email or call me in a week, or to send their thoughts about what they really want, etc. Simple stuff. I do this because time is limited, and also partly to test how committed they really are. Less than 20 percent actually follow back up with me. My current full-time assistant, Charlie Widdis, certainly wasn’t the only USM student I’ve offered to help. But he is the only one who responded, made an appointment, and then followed up later. That led to me hiring him as an assistant and eventually my full-time employee.

Follow Through — When I was coming up, I’d show my work to trusted photographers and if they gave me direct and pointed advice, you’d better believe I made appropriate changes. More recently, I worked with business coach Mandy Schumaker. She helped me work through a plan to make my business stronger. I wasn’t always prepared to do what she suggested at the time, but I noted everything and in the year or so since I’ve ticked off many of the items we agreed on. This speaks to the ability to follow through—on a project, on a difficult assignment or on a relationship that needs to be cultivated (they all do).

Show Gratitude — This is a big one. I’m everything in this career because of those who have gone before me or who have lent a helping hand when I most needed it. Brad Armstrong taught me how to do location lighting. Paul O’Neil taught me to be a better assignment photographer. Rick Wiley taught me to be a better photo editor. I’m grateful to them for the photographer I have become. I’m also thankful to the many people who agree to participate in project work that I do when they don’t have to. I’m grateful to my amazing, awesome clients who trust me and continue to do so. In fact, I should be thanking people more than I do. When I receive thank-yous—whether email or hand-written note—it feels great.

Know it’s Not About Them — We all struggle with this one. The work of photographers is personal, creative and requires a point of view. But if all you know is photography, you’re in a pretty small place. It’s lonely being a photo monk sacrificing all to the photo gods. When you’re talking to clients or others, quit talking about yourself, your gear and your job. Listen. Ask about them. It’s. Not. About. You.

I have to work at each of these areas just like everyone does. What’s clear to me is that when I follow my own advice, I do well. When I don’t, well…I don’t. As Mandy likes to say, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

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