NYIP: 21 Habits of Successful Photographers [SPONSORED]
NYIP presents, 21 Habits of Successful Photographers, by Patrick Donehue. Over the course of his career as a photographer, director of photography and educator, Patrick has enjoyed the privilege of working with many of the world’s top photographers. This talk was recorded over 2 days at the NYIP office in New York City. These are all Patrick’s observations, based on his experiences and friendships with 40 world renowned photographers. Patrick lives in Arizona and currently works as a consultant
“I’ve been blessed with the privilege of working with many of the world’s finest photographers as the VP/Director of Photography at Getty Images for a long time, and also for Corbis, as their Vice President and Chief Photographer for about ten years. Over time, I started to look at the aggregate of photographers I’d come to know and wonder what made some so successful and others far less accomplished.”
“Truth be told, it wasn’t always the better photographer who was the most successful. We’ve all seen this phenomenon—what (or who) rises to the top isn’t always the cream. So I started to try to quantify what I observed. Over time, I found myself compiling a list, of sorts, of the traits or habits that the most successful photographers had in common. The obvious revealed itself in short order. They were successful because they were good photographers. But the reality went much deeper. Certain characteristics began to reveal themselves.”
“Of course for every rule I attempt to point to, we can find exceptions. And for all the traits and habits I can point to, there is also the quotient of magic or synchronicity or fate that can’t be put into words let alone a list or a talk. But thankfully for me, there were some rather striking similarities among the photographers I considered. Maybe you possess a few or all of these habits yourself. Know that I have no prescribed way of thinking of these traits, except that I have noticed them over a long and fantastic career in the field I love.”
One of the most important things we need to develop as we move forward as photographers, is an ability to really see the world that’s in front of us. When you’re a baby you’re taking everything in; you are a dry sponge. Your level of curiosity is amazing.
As we grow older we learn to ignore things that may be familiar to us because we’ve seen them hundreds of times before. But really successful photographers have the ability to see even familiar things in an acute way that can be stunning. They know how to train themselves to see things anew and to catch themselves if they are looking past things. Very successful photographers retain their baby eyes. They nurture and practice awareness.
#2 Facing Adversity
Successful photographers have been able to overcome the adversity that comes their way in either their personal or professional lives. We all have events and circumstances that upend us at one time or another–bankruptcy, divorce, illness, or accidents. The most successful photographers I’ve observed were able to survive difficult experiences and rebound a little more quickly than you might expect. They certainly felt their experiences keenly, but they were able to dust themselves off and get back up. I guess you could say that they have a very strong desire to live and pursue their goals.
The strongest photographers I know are naturally optimistic. I don’t know whether you can be trained to be optimistic or if you have to be wired in that way. But connected to their ability to overcome adversity, is this inherent sense of optimism. These photographers seem to know that the best work they’ve ever done will likely be the work that’s made tomorrow. In this way, there’s an abiding sense of confidence that their best work is ahead of them. They stay pumped and motivated.
This is not to say that these photographers are not wholly engaged in the world as it really is, but a strong belief in the future keeps them excited about the possibilities that exist in the world of image making.
#4 Right Brain; Left Brain
The most successful photographers seem to have an uncanny ability to blend both art and commerce, or their right and left brains. Most of us are better at one side of things than the other. It’s unusual, I think, to be gifted in both hemispheres. So what can we do if it comes more naturally to us to think about creative rather than financial things?
Think of Warren Buffet. If success is defined as making money, then he is certainly successful. Now think of Picasso. He was actually a pretty good businessman, but his passion was the creation of art. So if you’re not the ideal blend of Buffet and Picasso, the best thing you can do is recognize your deficits. That way, you can partner with someone who is strong where you’re weaker.
Not every photographer I observed was equally talented as a photographer and a businessperson, but they knew enough to set things up in a way that their weaknesses were always covered. It’s a matter of knowing yourself and, balancing the places where you’re a little weak with strength.
#5 Value the Information Quest
The Internet provides us with an unobstructed view of the world around us. Whenever the mood strikes, we can click to other photographers’ work, to the latest in graphic design, or industrial art. What this contributes to is the development of our visually literacy. In the best photographers, this hunger is nearly insatiable.
In the old world, photographers poured over print media. We all looked at stacks of random magazines. We poured over layouts and tried to decipher how was the magazine was designed, how the photography was used, what were the popular styles, colors and trends. Now, of course, it’s so much easier, and perhaps even more necessary as things change so much more quickly.
And if at some time you don’t have access to a computer, or magazines, there’s always the newspaper. One of the best tools that we have available to us as photographers are newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. And don’t only look at the images and the advertisements, but read the papers and find out what’s happening in the world. Once you educate yourself about things– local and global–generating ideas of what to shoot becomes much easier. All of a sudden you’re immersed in ideas and the excitement of figuring out how to represent them in photographs.
Another very useful tool that we all have access to are television commercials. Watching tv ads can sharpen your visual awareness and you’ll start to see the world in a completely different way. Very successful photographers know to turn to media for refreshment, engagement, inspiration and ideas. The most successful photographers I know are always hungry for more visual information. As students of photography, no matter where you are in your development, we should be on this kind of information quest, daily.
Many photographers create a wall of tear sheets. They gather interesting images from magazines and web sites and tape them or tack them, or even nail them onto their walls. They put up hundreds of images so they can just sit back and look.
A wall of tear sheets has a lot of advantages. For one, you can get continual reinforcement of how visually rich this world is and how your photography might fit in. It also connects to the outside world in a way that can remind you that you’re not alone and that there’s excellent work being made out there. If you have the space, I would highly recommend that you create your own wall. If you don’t have the space, make it digital.
#6 Be Aware of Blind Spots
We all have blind spots. As photographers, we will spend much of our lives developing and uncovering them. We can take a lesson from driver’s ed: turn and look over your shoulder. Not literally of course, but as drivers we know that the blind spot exists. As photographers we must be aware of the danger and stay alert.
I would like to show an image that I shot recently with my cell phone. It’s here, in New York, and it’s a street scene down at the bottom of Manhattan. The inspiration for this exercise came from the great photographer Art Wolfe. He gave a talk about visual awareness that really made an impression on me and I would like to share this example because it’s particularly illustrative. The example that he used was an image that similar to this one and he said, “Find the arrow.”
We all looked. I believe there were several hundred in the room. Everyone was looking and looking and scratching their heads. No one was able to find the arrow. Then he said, “Look harder. Look at the image.” This went on for sometime. All of us were frustrated beyond belief.
Well, needless to say, there is an arrow. The arrow, of course, is in the EX on the FedEx truck.
The folks that created this logo for FedEx where, I’m sure, paid handsomely and they put that arrow in there, subtlety, on purpose. But we are so used to seeing something as common as a FedEx truck, that we look past it. Here, it’s virtually center frame in the image. But, our blind spots have taken over and kept us from seeing as accurately as we should be seeing.
So our goal, as photographers, is to go out and try to take the world in, and overcome our blind spots. I can guarantee you, you will never see a FedEx truck the same way again. I challenge you to go out and see a FedEx truck and not look for the arrow. Now you’ll find it.
David Barnes, the travel photographer, once said to me, “There’s a reason we’re born with two ears and only one mouth.” The best photographers know how to listen to their clients, their editors, curators, to each other, and to themselves. They aren’t afraid to ask questions and they don’t leave a topic or a meeting until the feel they understand what’s being asked of them.
#8 Speak a Global Visual Language
One of the keys to increasing our visual awareness is to look at things from a global perspective. We live in a large world that’s becoming smaller because of digital technology. It’s easy now for us to see what things look like in Singapore, or Shanghai, or Rio or Dubai. We can get a much better understanding of our world by doing a little bit of research.
As Americans, we tend to be fairly geocentric in our approach. We see what we see in our daily lives. But one can expand their vision without even getting on an airplane today. And when we make the effort to widen our vision, we get a much more rounded impression of the world and that can have a positive effect on our photography. The most successful photographer’s know to learn from our friends around the world. It helps us find our place despite our location.
#9 Know Your Extended Family
Other applied arts can be like extended family to photographers. It’s no secret that photographic trends are generally tied to the fashion trends that come out of Europe. The fashion capitals, Milan, Paris, Berlin, set the standards for a lot of visual trends. We need to look at how current fashion is shot.
Trends start to emerge, and photographic technique and lighting and perspective, all follow suit. This impacts how we see things, how our television commercials will be made, how color is determined, and even what colors we use in imagery.
Do an Internet search and go to Pantone, the color people. Or just Google color trends or color forecast, and you’ll see that forecast for colors of cars or furniture, or clothing, or paint colors for homes, they’re all established about two years ahead of time. All we have to do is become aware and take that in. The information will find its way into our photography.
Beside color cues, there is stylistic information we want to take in from fashion as well. A good example of style flowing from fashion to other genre of photography happened a while back with ring flash. Ring flash was a particular technique used in biomedical photography to capture surgery in which you had to come in close and have a very flat lighting.
Some enterprising photographer thought they would shoot fashion with ring flash and they created a massive trend that lasted for years. It was an experiment, but the fashion world embraced it. Then the corporate world embraced it and advertising embraced it, and the editorial world embraced it.
Having a relationship to other commercial arts as well as other genres of photography can help us evolve our visual signatures.
#10 Stand Out and Stand Tall
Successful photographers seem to know how to stand out from the crowd. They create images that we haven’t seen before. One way to insure you do that is to study what’s already been done.
Imagine you’re going to shoot Paris. If you do a simple Google search on Paris, you’re likely to find several million images. You aren’t going to look through all of them, but if you go through the first few pages, you’ll start to get a good sense as to what’s out there and how you might be able to add to it.
Our world has turned into a highly visual place. Most of us carry a cell phone. Most of those phones have cameras in them. Billions of images are posted on Facebook everyday. The last thing a photographer wants to do is make an image that other photographers have made. The best thing to do, of course, is to look at what’s been photographed and try to do it maybe a little differently.
But how are you different? The most successful photographers are obsessed with standing out from the crowd. It’s what makes them take the time to study what’s already been done and think about how they can do it differently. Their deep desire to stand out is what makes them who they are.
Suppose you’re a landscape or travel photographer. There a saying in that field that goes, “The world is filled with tripod holes.” What that means is that there are classic places and points of view that thousands of photographers have shot and that thousands more photographers will go to. We’ve all seen these pictures of the same things from the same perspective over and over, and over again.
If you want to stand out from the crowd you’re going to want to avoid the tripod holes and you’re probably going to want to think about how you can render that location in an entirely different way.
The quest for innovation that will likely be non stop for successful photographers throughout their lives. The best of us will always be wondering how to do it differently? Do we use technology? Do we crawl around on our hands and knees? Do we use different colors or introduce new elements into a scene? Do we use digital enhancements at different points in the creative process?
The truth is probably a combination of all of the above. The tools we have available to us today are endless. Oddly enough, even with so many people shooting, given all the tools available to us, it’s actually easier now than it’s ever been to create an original shot.
Once you’ve found your tool kit and defined your process at every step of image creation, you will start to develop your visual signature. And if you’re known as someone who can make a different kind of an image that’s aesthetically pleasing, you’ve got your football inside the five yard line. Even getting to that point might be enough to separate you from everyone else.
But we can’t assume that once we develop a visual signature, it will stay static. If it did, we’d end up shooting the same type of picture for our entire career. We evolve as people and we will evolve as visual artists. Images that once looked great to you may not look so good as you move forward. You should always be shooting and always creating a stronger visual signature.
#12 Bank on Success
But how do we afford to fuel this passion for–in some cases–this addiction to photography. Because it’s not inexpensive. It can be done inexpensively, but by and large equipment costs money and training costs money, software costs money, and learning curves are steep.
One of the things very successful photographers have in common is that they were properly funded in one way or other. Which means that they could actually grow and learn and do all the things they needed to do, including putting massive amounts of time and energy, into refining their craft.
You don’t have to be an heiress to do well in photography. Many of us fund ourselves with credit cards, others are blessed by having working spouses, others have full-time jobs and do photography on their time off. For some, photography is a hobby. Some call it a passion. But whatever it is, it needs to be funded.
Setting a budget is important and so is having the time, space and tools to learn and to grow. So how do you fund your passion? The answer is different for all of us. A lot of people come to photography as their second careers. They’ve been doctors or lawyers or accountants or engineers, and they’ve been successful. They’ve worked hard, and have the ability to put their energies into new things.
Today, some excellent photography can be done inexpensively. You can do a great deal using smart phones with great post-processing apps. But, if you want to be a sports photographer and you want to shoot state-of-the-art imagery, you’ll likely need a 400mm F2.8 lens, and that’s a $12,000 investment.
If you can do that, great. If you can’t, you might want to look at specialties that might suit you better. It all depends at which level you want to play. I like to use the analogy of a swimming pool. You can dip your toe in the shallow end or you can jump into the deep end. It depends on where you’re comfortable.
The best photographers I know have tended to be modest in their approach and made excellent use of the tools that were available to them. They took financial risk when it seemed appropriate to do so. Then rented, they borrowed, the beta- tested whenever possible. Do the very best you can. Your primary goal is to stand out from the crowd and that’s more state of mind than a state of the art. Remember that it’s the person behind the camera making the shot. No one ever asked Hemingway what kind of typewriter he used.
#13 Nobody Does it Alone
Photographers tend to lead isolated lives. They go out into the field alone, shoot, put images into a computer, and continue to work in an isolated way. As we look at successful photographers one of the things that pops out is the importance of partnerships in their lives. Almost all of the photographers I’ve observed who have done well have established support systems where they go for feedback, input, artistic and general life support.
It’s really important to be able to engage in discussions with people that you trust. Many of the very successful photographers I have known have spouses as partners. I’ve seen it time and again where a spouse or significant other will take care of the business and the other will do the shooting and vice-versa. Sometimes, even, they both do both.
If the relationship is not with your spouse, it might be with other photographers. The point is to get this organic feedback and bounce ideas off of other people. A great way to develop these relationships is to join photographic associations like ASMP, the American Society of Media Photographers. They have chapters all throughout the United States. They have monthly meetings and you meet other photographers and see what they’re are doing. They’re your tribe. And you can benefit tremendously from their company.
I know a photographer who had the absolute worst possible thing happen to him–he had a studio fire and lost everything. He lost his equipment, his portfolios and every image he’d ever made. The photography community learned about it and just about every brother and sister stepped up. He had replacement equipment within days. He had a studio space to work in within a week and he was able to start to reconstruct his life. That’s one of the reasons I love being a photographer because even though we’re all competitors, we’re also kin. If something happens to a friend in the business, they can borrow my equipment any day of the week. And I know that that is not unique to me.
As you progress in your own photography, remember to participate in the photographic community. Yes, they will be there for you when you need them, but you will also be there for others. Look at some of the biggest names photography has ever known—they’re often the founding members of the groups you want to join.
I can’t stress enough the importance of being in a collaborative environment where you can actually show people your work, get feedback. There are photographers among the group I’ve studied who always fly with their portfolio. They may have it on an iPad or Smartphone, but they will show their portfolio to anyone with eyes. There are photographers who will pick out strangers, the person they’re sitting next to on an airplane, and they will engage in a conversation, “I’m a photographer. Would you like to see some of my newest work? I’d love to hear what you think about it.”
And all of a sudden, you’ll get some feedback you didn’t expect. And if you have a blind spot, the blind spots will be uncovered. Or some other remark will spark a thought that will help you see something you haven’t seen before. Those of us that are blessed by having kids or having neighbors that have kids, might consider asking them to give you some feedback. Seeing things through the eyes of five year olds, eight or ten year olds, can be very eye opening. You can hear a remark about an image that was as easy to get as walking into the kitchen.
Feedback is critical in maturation. You will see your work in a different way. You’ll see it with more accurate eyes and you’ll develop into a better photographer. Every successful photographer will tell you this.
#14 Focus and Development aren’t just Photographic Techniques—they’re Attitudes
One of the keys to photographers’ success is their ability to channel their energy into their work and thrive on the process of improving. Focusing, no pun intended, is such an important thing. How do you see your work developing and what would you like to do? Successful photographers are always scanning the horizon for what they’d like to do.
Not all kinds of photography are equally enjoyable to photographers. Some love to shoot food and they wouldn’t shoot anything else but food. Others like travel photography. It all depends on how we’re wired. But one of the things that the most successful photographers have always had in common is their focus. They make choices and they persist. The ability to make a choice sets them apart. Because once you make a choice, you’ve made a commitment.
#15 Think of Yourself as a Surgeon
Photographers need to apply the same amount of care, the same precision, constructing our images that a doctor brings to the operating theater. The analogy that I like to use is this–if photographers thought of themselves as surgeons, they’re going to bring their best game to work everyday. Lives depend on it. A photographer’s life is really no different in that we want to bring our best game into play at every juncture. The best photographers I’ve known tend to be perfectionists. They love the details. The big picture and the small.
#16 Fail; Fail Again
If we fast-forward to next year, we should be able to catch a glimpse of ourselves as entirely different photographers than we are today. If we’ve applied that persistence, intensity, and devotion, your images will show the development. But you can’t evolve without taking risks.
To be able to engage in risk-taking is another key element in a photographer’s success. There needs to be a willingness to experiment and fail. Photography is actually very forgiving because when you fail, you learn. You can try things and if they don’t work you can move on to the next thing. No one suffers. In the digital world, we don’t have to consume loads of film and processing time, if we don’t like something we can delete it and move forward.
We should not hesitate to try everything at our disposal in the pursuit being different and unique. This necessarily means that there will be a fair amount of failure. If we talk to any notable photographer, they will talk about the risks that they’ve taken and the failures they’ve had and what they’ve learned from it. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Be afraid to be right too much of the time. Take whatever chances you can.
The notion of risk taking separates successful photographers from less successful photographers. When I teach this course at the college level, my students get big points for failure. I encourage them to go out and try something they would never have dreamed possible. If they fail, they get a high mark.
Most people are using digital cameras and with autofocus and autoexposure and with those tools one need not have a camera in front of their eyes to make a picture. You can hold the camera up above your head and point it in the general direction of your subject and oftentimes you’ll get a great image. Sometimes, though, you’ll miss the shot completely. Putting the camera up in the air like that is taking a risk. Not trying is the real failure.
#17 Edit, Then Edit Again. And Again
Start by selecting dozens of favorite images from a shoot. Then cut them down. Then do it again. And again. This is how you build a portfolio. The most successful photographers are ruthless editors of their own work.
#18 Be An Early Adopter
Very successful photographers are almost always early adopters of technology. It’s easy for us to see this in the digital world. By being an early adopter of technology, using new tools to help set you apart, you gain an edge on other photographers. In the 1980s, before auto exposure and autofocus, these functions were all manual. When autofocus came into being, every sports and wildlife photographer wanted to get these new tools.
If you’re a landscape or nature photographer and if you’re of my generation, you probably remember the days of when tripods were made of metal, not carbon fiber. When carbon fiber tripods came out in the 1980s, it radically changed the life of a nature photographer because they could go out into the field carrying a tripod that weighed a quarter of what their previous tripod weighed. If you have to hike in ten miles to get the image that you want, carrying around a much lighter tripod gives you a massive advantage over the other guy.
These examples of early adoption to technology, go way back before the digital revolution. A lighter piece of equipment enables a photographer to carry more diverse gear than they previously could have managed. The development of new technology is ongoing. Photographers have got to be in a position where they can monitor be aware of what’s coming and choose what they need to to embrace in order to help their image-making process.
The most successful photographers I know have kept an eye on what’s coming, but not exclusively. The photographer does need to be well-informed, but limit the time you spend gathering that information because you could be reviewing equipment day in and day out for the rest of your life and not get behind the camera.
#19 Master Your Tools, Not the Other Way Around
The tools of photography are important but what’s even more important than the tools is your command of them. If you’re a plumber or a carpenter you need to know exactly what those tools do for you so you can do your job and do it better than your competition. Photography is no different. One of the things that the very successful photographers have had is the ability to master their tools.
Read those manuals, memorize them, and then throw them away. That behavior alone speaks volumes—take the time and have the patience to learn all you can about your equipment. Most great photographers have a full understanding of the tools, electronic and otherwise. If you’re not inclined to do a lot of digital work then you can give it to someone who can work on your behalf. But when it comes to shooting, you’re behind the camera, you’re the photographer.
#20 Value Personal Work
There’s a good argument that says, “All photography we make should be personal work.” I’m a proponent of that. It’s all personal work, really. There should be plenty of time in our lives when we’re shooting outside our specialty or work we do for a living. You may make money shooting food but you will probably achieve a great amount of satisfaction and enjoyment shooting other things.
Having a Smartphone or a tablet with you all the time makes getting some of these more personal pictures more possible than ever before. It’s rare that I have a day that I didn’t go out and make pictures because it keeps me alive. I’m always looking for pictures and now I don’t have to carry all my equipment. I’ve got it in my pocket which is fantastic.
All of these pictures I’m about to show you have all been shot on Smartphones. It’s my belief that these devices have helped turned images into the new words. They’ve certainly turned us all into more spontaneous photographers. We’re able to respond to scenarios in a moment’s notice. Enjoying the accessibility that the Smartphone gives us helps exercise those muscles that we don’t always remember to move. Personal work are projects to enjoy for their own sake. And oddly enough, when you do exercise this muscle, it actually improves your other photography. It will give you a new idea, a new perspective, and you’ll be able to carry that on to your next shoot. So many successful photographers have told me of stylist and technical changes that came to them through personal work. A career without it just doesn’t seem to go as far.
#21 There’s More to Life Than Photography
As I’ve looked at the people I know who have been successful in the photography business, it’s easy to say that they all have a strong passion for photography. But the most successful photographers have developed other passions outside of photography as well. And I think that’s a key driver in creating a well-balanced life.
One photographer I know loves collecting wine. A lot of photographers I know are passionate about music. Mark Sellinger, a brilliant celebrity photographer that you may know of, has got a band and he plays music. I’ve heard his music. I’ve seen his pictures. I know the two feed each other in an inextricable way.
I know another photographer who has a passion for fly fishing. He has his Zen moments while fly fishing. My friend, Art Wolfe, loves movies. He travels nine or ten months out of the year to places where he can’t see movies. When he gets home he likes to put everything away for a bit and watch a stack of movies–three or four in a day. All that visual information feeds his passion for photography. He’ll see how filmmakers have rendered situations. He’ll study photographic technique. He’ll study the narrative and wonder how that applies to his images. There’s no question about it, photography is Art Wolfe’s overriding passion. But the wisdom of other passions is that they allow a sense of rest, rejuvenation, and renewed dialog with your first love.
This last observation may seem contrary to many of the things I said so far, but sometimes it’s a good idea to put photography on a shelf. I’ve seen some of the most successful photographers do it. Find other things in life to carry you forward–family, friends, hobbies. They will help complete the picture of your life in the biggest sense, and also help you make your next picture better, and then the next, and so on.