What does success as a photographer look like for you, and how can you grasp it?
1 Be clear on your goals
What is success? Is it all about making money or is it more important that you can produce images of a certain standard? Before you set out to be a successful photographer, it’s worth considering what success looks like for you. It might be about mastering a certain style of photography, or getting exhibited in a gallery, or amassing 10,000 followers, or making enough to earn a living. Success to you might look very different to success to me. Ask me what my favourite shot I’ve taken is, and I don’t tend to look back further than the last decent one I made (a light painting at the beach a couple of weeks ago). Instead I’m always thinking ‘what can I shoot next’. Personally, this is what success is for me, the journey rather than the destination, and the privilege of regularly crafting something new.
2 Be strict about your vision
Glance through the work of the most successful photographers - either commercially or artistically - in the history of the art and you’ll see that one thing is obvious: each of them has their own instantly recognisable vision. It’s the strict adherence to this vision that is an essential part of their success. There are more great photos out there than at any point in history, so if you want yours to stand out you need more than just a portfolio of quality images. You also need a style that makes your work coherent and recognisable. Whether it’s an obsession with a particular subject, a particular lighting setup, or even a consistent focal length. If your photos look like they all belong under the umbrella of a single creative vision, potential clients will come to you because they know what they’re going to get.
3 Learn technique, but don’t obsess over it
While it’s important to know how your camera works, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is all you need to know. It’s easy to fall into the trap of obsessing over the technique behind an image, when what matters most is the image itself. For instance, there’s a photo I took of a windmill that I quite like because it reminds me of the evening I had to climb up on top of an old container to get the best angle, fit a 13-stop ND filter to my ultra-wide angle lens to blur the slow-moving clouds and wait for a 12 minute bulb exposure. Then I somehow cracked my ND filter getting off the container. But for the person viewing the image, that information is irrelevant. All they’re interested in is whether it’s an engaging photo or not. Deep down I know my windmill picture probably wasn’t worth the broken filter.
4 Get to know the gear you have
We photographers tend to always be looking for the next piece of kit. But there is probably gear in your bag that you’ve not made the most of yet. Perhaps there’s a mode on your camera that you’ve not tried, an underused lens, or a speedlight that stays mostly forgotten. There’s always a temptation to get more gear, but perhaps we should first get to know the gear we already own.
5 Buy more lenses
OK this is a complete contradiction of the last point. But if you have money to spend, you can’t go wrong by spending it on a quality lens. Whether it’s a fast prime, a hefty telephoto, a sweet macro or a pin-sharp wide angle, a new lens can open the door not just to new angles, but also to new photographic choices and ideas. Beginners can make the mistake of thinking a new camera will lead to better photos, but cameras get superseded every few years, while a good lens can last a lifetime. They hold their value too.
6 Take care of business
As photographers we are often slightly guilty of giving ourselves a free pass on certain things because, you know, we’re artists. It’s a generalisation, but creatives aren’t considered to be very good at balancing the books, networking, marketing, selling, liaising with clients and all the other practicalities of running a business. This might be a sweeping statement, but it’s no secret that many creatives don’t make as much money as they’d like to. So to be a successful photographer, we need to do more than just take great pictures. Take a business course, get on top of your accounts, make a plan, schedule time for practical tasks. For most of us, it can be done. And if it can’t, find people who can do it for you.
7 Keyword better
Some of us are good at this, but many others lack the discipline. A few seconds spent keywording your images can bring huge benefits. Not only will it make your growing image library easier to navigate and organise, it’s also beneficial if you want to submit images to stock libraries. If you use Lightroom, you can add keywords while importing, using the keyword field on the right of the Import dialog. Get into the routine of doing it right at the start, and you can save lots of time searching through your drive for that elusive image later on.
8 Edit smarter
If we can cut down the time we spend editing photos then we can potentially make more time to take them. Many of us tend to continue using the tools that we’ve grown to know over years of editing, but there are new tools that can speed up our editing and streamline our workflow. For instance, the recently updated Masking Panel in Lightroom and Photoshop Camera Raw is a phenomenal tool for local adjustments. You can utilise AI tools to automatically select a subject, background or any object in the scene, fine tune the mask with manual sub masks, then boost the area. AI tools like this are the way forward in image editing. Keep abreast of them and you can save yourself lots of screen time.
9 Make people discover you
Even if you have a killer portfolio, if all you’re doing is posting pictures on social media and waiting to be discovered, you may have a long wait in store. You need to be proactive in getting your work noticed. Start by determining who your audience is, then look at ways to access that audience. If it’s weddings you’re after, then go to bridal shows, contact wedding venues, get to know hair stylists and target social media sites popular with brides like Pinterest. If it’s commercial photography you want to get into, contact agencies and marketing departments directly with links to your work, then follow up in a friendly manner.
10 Prepare for the long haul
Those who manage to find a short-cut to success are very lucky indeed. The rest of us need to be prepared for the long haul. Experience is built up through years of practice, refinement and failures. Some might become frustrated if success isn’t instantaneous, but successful people don’t tend to share that mentality. When all is said and done, success is about taking action. By reading this article you are taking a small action. Take many more every day and who knows where you can end up.
- AuthorJames Paterson
James has been a professional photographer and award-winning journalist for the past 15 years. He is editor of Practical Photoshop magazine and contributes to leading photography publications worldwide.View all articles