3 Ways To Improve Your Photography Today

Despite what social media may tell you, there is no such thing as a magic path to success. But what are some concrete steps you can take to reach your goal of becoming a successful artist?

Okay, first off the bat, we should probably determine the term “success,” as that will mean different things for different people. For some, success is simply being able to take a photograph of your family members that doesn’t suck. For others, success is a financial figure, a way to support their family. For others still, success might be more of an abstract goal of reaching a certain level of aesthetics and reputation within the photo community. Whatever success means to you, we know two things to be true. One, you’re not going to get it just by buying a new camera. Sorry to burst your bubble. But, deep down inside, you already knew that to be true. And truth number two?  Getting better at photography, or anything in life, requires that you put in the work to improve.

So, what are some steps you can take to advance to the next level of the game?

Create Personal Projects

The other day, I was at a function with a number of other photographers. I was standing in a circle alongside several colleagues who have been in this business for a long time and are, by any objective measurement, successful in the field. Also joining the group was a newer photographer who was attending the event as a way to connect with others in the business. More on that in a second.

The newer photographer was bemoaning the number of personal projects she was having to do as a means of building her portfolio. This led to her asking one of the veteran photographers whether someone of their stature even bothers with personal projects anymore. It didn’t take more than ten seconds for every veteran photographer in the circle to respond with a resounding “yes.”

It is true that in order to build your portfolio when starting out, you will need to initiate a number of personal projects. Of course you will.  No one is going to hire you without experience. And the only way to get experience, at first, is to employ yourself. Practically speaking, these self-assignments are the best way to learn. By the time you do have real clients, they are unlikely to have much patience for you mucking around trying to learn your camera settings on the job. But in a personal project, you can try and fail as many times as you want without the prying gaze of the world being any the wiser.  

But personal projects have supreme value even for those photographers who have been around so long that they’ve forgotten more than most will ever know. You may no longer need practice in understanding how to expose with a light meter, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to let your artistic development stall, especially if your goal is to reach the upper echelon of your chosen genre.

Being an artist means continually developing your skill set and your voice. It’s one of the dirty secrets they don’t tell you when you first get into the business.  There will never come a time when you can afford to stop developing and rest on your laurels. The business moves too fast. Technology moves too fast. Those photographers coming up behind you are moving too fast. You simply have to keep getting better.

The best way to do this is by continuing to develop your artistic voice. The best way to do that is through personal projects. Like the photographer just starting out, personal projects again provide you with a safe space to try new things. In trying those new things, you might just find the new approach or technique that is going to set your product apart from others in the market. By continually challenging yourself, you ensure that you are increasing your intrinsic value as an artist. You will develop and change repeatedly over the course of a career. And, almost certainly, those developments will be the result of the work you put in to succeed.

Join The Club

I mentioned earlier about the younger photographer that went to the networking function to speak with some of her elders. While her hope to no longer need to do personal projects might have been shortsighted, she was, in actuality, doing, at that very moment, one of the other best things she could possibly do to succeed.

One of the earliest things I did in my career was to join American Photographic Artists. This isn’t an advertisement for the APA. Rather I bring my association with that group up as an example. At the time I first joined, I was still wet behind the ears and didn’t know much about the industry. I knew how to take pictures. But I didn’t know anything about things like day rates, usage fees, or any of the other multitude of things that would be critical in both starting and maintaining a profitable business. So, I joined the APA because they offered networking opportunities and lectures with those who have excelled in the field that would give me firsthand accounts that could help me to understand some of my blind spots. Additionally, the organization would provide me with a network of fellow photographers who have functioned as both a support system and a portal through which I can better understand industry trends and opportunities.

Even though these other photographers can’t hire me and we are, as a point of fact, competitors to a certain extent, their kinship over the years has been key in my development. I now sit on the board of the APA LA chapter, which allows me to give back to younger photographers in the same way the organization gave to me all those years ago.

But, as I said, this isn’t an advertisement for the APA specifically. Wherever you live and whatever market you are a part of, there is likely a local photographer’s group that you can be a part of. Photography can be an isolating field of work. Connecting with others in your same boat allows you to gain from their experience as well as create the basis for friendships that can last a lifetime.

Don’t Purchase, Produce

I’ve said this before and continue to repeat it as it is the most often confused part of photography. Your gear is not what is going to set you apart in this business. Your work and your unique way of seeing the world will. Yes, certain types of photography require certain types of tools. But I can guarantee you one thing. If a client is only hiring you because you own a certain type of camera, that is likely the type of assignment you don’t want any part of. Because that means that the client can’t recognize quality art and is trying to marginalize what you do as an artist to being just a function of pressing a button and letting the camera do the rest. This is also likely the kind of client that is going to lowball you on your rate and pay the least respect to things like intellectual property or usage rights. If all they need is someone to press the button, let them get their friend to do it. You want clients who understand that you are bringing more to the table than a high enough credit limit to purchase the latest equipment. If you are going to sustain a career, it’s going to be based on your development as an artist, not whatever camera has just hit the market.

In almost two decades of being a professional photographer, not once has a client asked me prior to hiring me what kind of camera I use. They look at my portfolio and decide if I am the right artist to add value to their project. If their specific project calls for something special in terms of specs (megapixels, shooting speed, etc.), then that will be addressed when I submit my bid. But never is it the fact that I own Camera X that is getting me a job.

Oddly, and frustratingly, this can come up in the filmmaking world. Unlike photography, when submitting for film campaigns, I have been asked prior to shooting a project what camera I would be shooting on. It’s frustrating because, as you’ll know if you’ve been a filmmaker long enough, you can make almost any modern camera look amazing if you know what you are doing. Yet, in the filmmaking market, brand names do carry a lot more weight than they should.

That does not, however, mean that if you want to improve as a filmmaker or a photographer that your first order of business should be to go out and make sure you have the right brand of camera.

Rather, if you just can’t help the urge to spend money, a far better use of your money and time would be to invest it in specific projects. I already talked earlier about using personal projects to develop your skillset, artistic voice, and portfolio. Well, what if, instead of just doing something easily accessible, you instead invested some of that camera money into upgrading your location, your models, or your styling. How much better could that personal project be? Sure, you might not have a new camera at the end of it. But, that temporary rush of dopamine will pale in comparison to having this new elevated project for you to show off to potential clients.

Don’t have any money to invest in either a camera or a project? No need to worry. Look at the resources within your means to figure out new ways of seeing. Developing as an artist doesn’t mean that everything you shoot needs to go into your portfolio. But every time you shoot, you are giving yourself a chance to grow and get better. So, if all your resources allow for at the moment is a walk around the block with your camera phone, that walk can still be extremely valuable in developing your understanding of light and composition.

If you are trying to get better as an artist, it is not your tools that are holding you back. Getting better takes time. Lots of time. It requires repetition until skills become second nature. It requires pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone to discover new things.

In short, getting better as a photographer takes actual hard work. But, if you saw the title of this article and chose it over the one about the specs of the latest super camera, you are already on the right track. Keep putting in the effort and progress would come. It may seem to be taking forever, but success is always right on time.

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