Category Photographers

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.”

–30–

 

On photographers and community

 

Jose Azel, left, of Aurora Photos, talks with photographer Kevin Brusie.   In background:  Peter Dennen of Pedro+Jackie Photo Consulting.
Jose Azel, left, of Aurora Photos, talks with photographer Kevin Brusie. In background: Peter Dennen of Pedro+Jackie Photo Consulting.

 

As a newspaper photojournalist, it was always about competition — against myself, against my colleagues, against photographers at competing news organizations. I loved getting a shot at a news scene that the other guys missed—the proof of my short-lived super-awesomeness in print for all to see the next day. Despite this, the world of editorial newspaper photography is a small and tight-knit group. We competed, but we also helped each other. I’ve been given rolls of film by photographers from competing newspapers, and have given batteries and digital cards to others. Off the clock, we’d often hang out and engaged in the time-honored photographer pastime of complaining.

The commercial world of photography inhabited by art photographers, editorial and commercial shooters isn’t quite the same. We don’t see each other at news scenes typically and are more like lone ships in the night—occasionally passing but not spending time in each others company. It’s a hazard of being a solo business person and in a competitive market environment. What we miss out is the community of photographers that support, help and encourage each other…and yes, compete.

Last evening we had an amazing gathering of local photo talent at the bimonthly ASMP Maine “Breakfast” Club at Brian Boru’s Pub. These breakfast meetings are casual affairs organized throughout New England by members of the American Society of Media Photographers meant to promote community among ASMP members and non-members alike. In Maine, we’ve settled on evening events rather than breakfast because it’s just easier when you’re asking people to drive from hours away to attend. Last night, Amy Wilton and her intern came from all the way from Hope, Maine (thanks, Amy). We had editorial shooters, corporate commercial folks, lifestyle photographers, and wedding photographers. Well-known locals showed as did some recent transplants, like David Butler who moved here from Arizona last year.

I’m excited about last night for a couple of reasons. The turnout was great. It’s clear that the photographers enjoyed meeting and talking with each other. Looking around the room, I realized that we do have a community—one that can and will come together. We also tried something different last night. instead of just gathering to have beer, Peter Dennen of Pedro+Jackie Photo Consultants gave professional portfolio reviews. We’re going to continue to offer programming at our future meetings as well. Our next “Breakfast” is Wednesday, July 9 at Aurora Photos in Portland. We’ll have appetizers, drinks (because, Beer!) and Aurora founder and National Geographic photographer Jose Azel will be presenting.

Thanks to all who were able to come out last night—and for those who couldn’t, I’ll keep you posted on future gatherings. And if you ever need batteries, let me know.

 

–30–