“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
It was 30 years ago this week that I made the decision to become a photographer. To make it official I went out and got business cards printed that said:
…and my home phone number. I then spent the next 30 years making it up as I went along.
It’s been a roller coaster of a ride and I’ve loved every minute of it but there have been times when I doubted my decision and wondered if I was really any good, or would be better off “getting a real job”. Starting out is never easy and sometimes, all we really need is someone to tell us to keep going.
It’s worth it and everything is going to be okay. So I decided to write my younger photographer a letter and share some of the things I know for sure now – and really needed to hear back then.
1. Get a mentor
My greatest regret is not seeking out mentors earlier in my career and believe that I didn’t need them once I was established. A good mentor is worth their weight in gold and the more you grow and develop as an artist the more you need one to ensure that you continue to grow and succeed. A good mentor has walked the path you want to walk but knows all the shortcuts and potholes to avoid.
2. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” – Theodore Roosevelt
The one question I get asked the most is “What camera will make me a better photographer?” And the answer is whatever camera you are using now.
I started out on an entry-level Nikon and cheap zoom. I then bought a second-hand pro body and lens and didn’t buy new gear for the first 10 years.
There are many photographers doing amazing work on what some would consider average gear. There are just as many photographers creating mediocre work on top of the line cameras. It’s not about the gear. Focus on learning the craft.
3. Make your bed every day
Sounds ridiculous right? What can doing your bed every day possibly do to improve your photography? It’s not about making the bed. It’s about finding discipline and learning to do the grunt work every day even when you’re not feeling it. Making the bed each day also brings a sense of control and order and something consistent to come back to when the caca hits the fan.
Doing this one small task each day has made a huge difference in how my day feels especially when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
4. Photograph the things that you love
Boy was I a slow learner with this piece of advice! I spent the first 20 years of my career photographing things I thought would get me more bookings. I rarely did personal projects because “I never had time”. It wasn’t until a trip to Italy 10 years ago that I started shooting for fun.
Believe it or not, that’s when I finally fell in love with photography again. Some of my biggest clients have come from the work I’ve created and shared on subsequent trips. It’s really difficult to be passionate about something you’re just not that into but when you find that thing (or things) that light you up, it totally oozes out of every pixel and it’s that love and passion that gets your images noticed.
5. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
I wasted so much time not starting projects or trying new lighting styles, software etc because I was so hung up on doing everything perfectly. The stuff that I started and allowed myself to suck at first are the areas I’m most proud of today. It’s okay to suck at something the first few times you try it. The important thing is that you start and keep moving forward. Back yourself, don’t be afraid to suck, and trust that the next step will always appear.
6. Surround yourself with people who inspire and support you
This was a real game changer for me. Having people around me who believed in me and inspired me really changed the way I saw myself as a photographer and gave me the courage to grow and develop my skills and take bigger risks.
The people who kept telling me to get “a real job” were projecting their own fears and insecurities.
7. Worry is a misuse of the imagination
I wish I spent less time worrying about all the things the could go wrong and focused more of my attention on all the amazing things that could go right!
What advice would you give your younger photographer self? I’d love to hear from you.