Good Enough to Succeed in Photography
It’s been a tough few years and people are frustrated with the state of the industry. Everywhere I turn, people seem to be saying that a photography career isn’t what it used to be and that budgets are tight. Many of the blogs I read and the message boards that I visit all seem to be repeating the same message: There’s no work, there’s no money, and the competition is too intense to succeed. To quote one frustrated photographer, “How do you f’ing make a living shooting pictures anymore?”
While it’s absolutely true that newspapers and magazines have been badly hurt by the economy and that the business of photography has been fragmented, people still need pictures. Just look at the magazine racks at your local bookstore and the sheer number of publications that are shelved there. The ads in those magazines all need pictures and the stories within the magazines also need pictures. People still need photography.
I think the real change that’s occurred is that there’s an ever-increasing number of people who are entering the business and that increase has naturally led to intense competition for the work. People have always loved the idea of shooting pictures as a way of life and many more people are now pursuing photography because the barrier to entry is now virtually non-existent. Technically, anyone can be a photographer these days. And pretty much anyone is.
How did this happen?
Technology. Technology changed how photographs get made and that same technology is what’s made it possible for the sheer number of photographers to grow so quickly. In the last 30 years, these are just a few of the technologies that have become commonplace: autofocusing, auto-exposures, TTL, motor-drives, digital cameras, Photoshop, RAW captures and the Internet.
What all those things mean is that it’s a snap (pardon the pun) to be a photographer these days. Simply head down to a decent professional camera store, pick up a good Nikon or Canon DSLR, a high-quality zoom, a decent flash and just like that, you’re a photographer. Then, upload your pictures to Flickr or PhotoShelter and instantly, you have a distribution network for your photos. This very process is happening every, single day.
Consider this: In less than two minutes, I can setup my current camera to autofocus, auto-expose, auto-white balance, TTL flash and RAW capture and hand it to my mom (who knows less about photography than I know about brain surgery) and tell her to just point the camera in the general direction of what she wants to shoot and the camera will do the rest. If she doesn’t get the exposure just right, I’ll fix it for her later in LightRoom. If she doesn’t compose just right, I’ll crop it later in Photoshop because I have so much file size to work with. I won’t have to teach her how to change the film in the camera because the 128GB card will hold about 7600 images—more frames than she will likely shoot during her trip to the beach with her grandson. Finally, I won’t have to really coach her very much on waiting for the “decisive moment,” because at ten frames a second, she’ll likely get plenty of them. The frames that aren’t so decisive, I’ll just drag to the trash icon in the lower right corner of my Mac. Will she make any powerful, innovative, compelling images? Not likely. But the point is she will make consistently usable images and she’ll be happy with them. There will be many, many pictures that are, “good enough.” What I wonder is how many professional photographers are saying something similar about their own photographs.
The question is, if you’re a professional photographer and “good enough” is all you’re striving for, are you really all that surprised that you have so much competition?
Let’s say you want to be a sports photographer. What does it take to be a sports photographer today? Well, you need a camera that can capture the peak action and most high-end DSLRs will do that with the frame rates they offer. You need a telephoto lens that will autofocus faster than you can do it manually and most will do that easily. You’ll need a few other items to make pictures, but for the most part, you now have all the same technology at your fingertips that every other photographer at the game will have. And that’s the problem. The technology—the cameras and lenses—are the great equalizer. Everyone begins from the same technological place now.
That wasn’t true at all just a few years ago. Back then a sports photographer needed to know how to follow focus and be great at it. They would also need a good meter to determine exposure and the quirks of different film emulsions and how to use push-processing when they shot in low-light. But even if they had those skills, once the pictures were processed and ready to be distributed, they were still limited by geography and time. Today, none of that is true. The technology in today’s digital cameras and the connections and speed of the internet make the barriers to entry almost non-existent. The only remaining barrier is access to the game itself. And even that is easily overcome.
For example, there are many picture agencies that specialize in professional sports imagery. The images that their photographers capture appear in national newspapers and magazines like Sports Illustrated and other major publications. In order to produce images for distribution, they routinely acquire credentials for major events and send photographers out to shoot and pay those photographers little or nothing for hours of work on the sideline. And you know what? They have a line out the door of young photographers who are willing to make that deal—access, in exchange for coverage. The photographers are looking for experience and imagery that will build their portfolio, and the agency owner is looking to profit and grow from that. And this kind of arrangement isn’t something new.
When I was a photojournalism student in college, I wanted access to news events. And the only way I could get that access was with a media credential. So, I made a deal with a small weekly newspaper. If I would cover Friday night football games for $6 per published picture, the editor would write a letter to the Los Angeles Police Department on my behalf so that I could get a press pass. Without hesitation, I gladly took the deal.
Once I had my pass, very little was off-limits to me and my camera. I shot warehouse fires and plane crashes and any other news I could get to—for the experience. After about a year, I had some major news events in my book, so I said so long to the weekly and moved on with my pictures. I had gotten the access, improved my portfolio and tasted the news business. Then I drove my portfolio over to a different newspaper and for the next 18 months, my press pass said The Los Angeles Times. Mission accomplished.
The point is to grow. Expand. Push. Take some risks. Shoot something you don’t already know how to shoot. Just keep shooting.
If photographing sports is your thing, outwork everyone else at the game. Because once you realize that everyone else has essentially the same technology in their hands that you do, the only thing that will separate you from the gaggle of other photographers is how hard you’re willing to work to beat them. If you’re assigned a baseball story and you haven’t shot much baseball, study it—even if it’s only on TV. Learn the players and the strategy and whether a certain player has a tendency to break his bat at the plate. While everyone else is showing up 30 minutes before game time, why not get there early to shoot batting practice to get your timing more precise? How about a remote camera in addition to your handheld? How about looking for something other than game action? If you have to do a portrait at the ballpark, how about setting up some lights rather than just bouncing your speed light off the ceiling?
The most successful photographers do this—and more. A baseball shooter I admire is at spring training right now making great images of the team he works for. He has the same camera and lenses that everyone else has, but his images are better because he knows the game and he outworks everyone else. Another photographer I know shoots Olympic figure skating. He has been known to actually diagram the entire routine of a skater during their practices so that he will know precisely where they will glide, where they will leap and where they are likely to fall. Is it any wonder that he rarely misses the shot—or that he is the go-to guy for figure skating?
My inspiration whenever I feel like cutting a corner or leaving a case of lights behind is to remember that there is always a cubicle job that will be glad to have me if the photography gig is too demanding and competitive. That terrifying thought has inspired me to drag six cases of lights through an airport more than once when I needed to kick myself in the ass. And I’ve never, ever said to myself, “Gee, I’m glad I took the easy way, left all the lighting gear behind and just brought my on-camera strobe.” The pictures are always better when you push yourself harder.
If there is a better way to go through life and earn an honest living than being a photographer, I’m not sure what it could be. It’s like having a ringside seat to anything you want to learn about. If you want to know more about airplanes, work for Boeing or Gulfstream or Airbus. Love cars? Shoot for car magazines or Lexus or Ferrari. Have a passion for architecture and design? Work for architects or interior designers or the magazines that publish their work. Fanatical about golf? There is an entire industry that needs product shots of clubs and balls and even golf carts. Would you rather be on the course? You can cover tournaments for the PGA, the golf magazines or even shoot PR pictures for companies holding golf outings. If you want to travel all over the world and still be involved in golf, you can make images of courses for the designer or make amazing brochure images for golf resorts. The work is definitely there in all those spaces and countless others. There is a niche for everyone. Heck, I even know of a guy who makes most of his living shooting nothing but kids scooters. One, single brand of kids scooters. And he does quite well financially too.
The photographers who are shooting the new Boeing planes, or the latest Ferrari, or the golf resort in Hawaii, or the latest scooter designs are not striving to just be “good enough.” If they ever do, someone else is right behind them to take their spot.
I teach every year at a workshop in Colorado and while I’m there I look at portfolios along with picture editors from Sports Illustrated and the New York Times as well as photographers from university athletic programs, international magazines and global wire services. Typically, out of about fifty portfolios each year, three or four stand out from the rest. Those photographers—without exception—are the one’s for who “good enough,” never is. They push. They reach. They grow. They push even harder. It shows very clearly in their pictures. And I remember each photographer’s name, where they are from and I follow their work. The pictures are that good.
Occasionally, a photographer just has a natural gift of vision and every image looks different than anything you’ve ever seen before. Those photographers are rare and they are the one’s that have the most potential to really make their mark in this profession. In twelve years of looking at portfolios, I’ve met only three people who had that rare and special eye. The images are the kind that make you cock your head and linger for awhile on each image and wonder how and why they saw that subject in just that way. I make a point to follow those photographers too because I hope that someday I might learn to see as well as they see.
The desire to be a photographer, to some, can be similar to the desire to be an actor or a novelist or a rock star. The dream is more often the focus than the hard work that’s needed to get there. The idea of walking the red carpet at the Oscars, or being a solitary writer on a tropical island, or performing in front of thousands of screaming fans at a sold out concert, or shooting from the pit at the Indy 500 can be powerful visions. To get there, and stay there, takes desire and drive and risk and perseverance—in both those other professions and in photography. And the fear of ending up in a cubicle is probably as great a motivator as any.
But, it’s worth the effort. You find yourself in places and with people that you would never get to meet if you were in the cubicle. And, you create photographic souvenirs of each experience along the way. It’s the ringside seat to everyday life that makes photography truly worth the effort to be more than “good enough.”