I was in a discussion with some folks the other day about why some photographers succeed and so many others fail. These people mentioned a series of things. Business acumen, economics, etc. I was mostly listening. It’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart since Pictage’s mission is to help professional photographers succeed in as many ways as we can. When I got home I did an admittedly unscientific survey of photographers who’ve emailed me or messaged me through the forums. I looked at sites of photographers I know are doing well. I looked at sites of photographers who are hurting.
These results aren’t universal. There are exceptions to every rule. If you’ve contacted me for help and you think I’m writing this just about you, I’m not. If it hurts do something about it. If it doesn’t this either isn’t a problem for you or you will also fail. That’s ok. 72% of the photographers who start this year will be out of business within two years.
Here’s what I found... earth shattering I know...
Successful photographers take great pictures.
It’s funny, right? And it should be obvious. It’s not though. Sadly. So much time and energy is spent on so many other things. But the most powerful determiner of success is the quality of the images you shoot. Period. Full stop.
Think about it. Do you worry that other photographers might be better? Do you worry about Uncle Bob or Cousin Kerry? Do you know that every time you go out to shoot, no matter what you are going to face, that you’re going to get great images for your clients? If you worry about any of these things then stop worrying about branding, marketing, etc. and go out and learn how to make great images. It is the most important thing you can do as a photographer.
I thought this was awfully simplistic. But when I went back and went through the sites again there was a common theme in what I saw, (at least in what I could see online). Very few of the images really “popped.” They were all good. I just can’t say that I think they were great. I get that this is pretty subjective, but I think it’s important to understand that the client is being subjective too. The client’s measure of great is a wholly subjective measure. Do I feel like I look great?
What defines a great image? Great emotion. Great light. Great settings. An understanding of the power of depth of field. A fearlessness about light and dark. An understanding of the power of natural light. An understanding of the purposes and proper use of augmented light. An understanding of the proper use of the various lens focal lengths and their impact on a subject. It is important to understand that an automatic camera doesn’t actually know any of these things. It is programmed for safe and average. It is not programmed for spectacular.
A modern automatic camera can take solid pictures without much knowledge. That scares a lot of photographers and, quite frankly, it shouldn’t. Clients don’t hire professionals for solid. They hire professionals for excellent. They know their foibles. They’ve seen decent pictures of themselves. What they want from you is nothing short of greatness. That’s why they’re hiring you. Can you deliver? If you do they will hire you again (in a heartbeat) and they will tell all of their friends about you. (probably “steal” a few pictures and put them on FaceBook too!). Conversely, if they feel the job you do is just good enough they’ll likely more or less bury the images away and move on. You’ll never hear from them again.
Great photographers know how to work within a setting to capture what is happening in a way that will translate powerfully to a captured image. If they are shooting a live event like a wedding, bar mitzvah or even a kids T-ball game they understand light and angle and they know the capabilities (and drawbacks) of their equipment. In a portrait situation a great photographer can make a mundane setting extraordinary. They have taught themselves to see light differently. When their clients see their images they will say, “I never would have seen this this way” and they will mean it.
Great photographers also understand that post production is like the seasoning at the end of the cooking process. It’s that last touch of salt, sweetness or acidity that gets the balance just right before the dish is served. It is not the core ingredient. While it is true that the modern professional cameras, capturing images in RAW format provide extremely forgiving latitude, nothing can make up for a bad shooting angle, missed focus or the wrong equipment. As a rule, if you spend more time editing than you do shooting then you may want to brush up your camera skills. (because all of that editing time costs you a lot of money -whether in out of pocket cash or in time).
The business of professional photography is first and foremost the business of taking great pictures. Everything else is secondary. Lots of other things may have an impact on how successful you become, but nothing has anything like the impact of a great image. If that’s not in your repertoire, it’s time to get to work.
Here’s the thing. Being a great photographer is not the only measure of success. Once you’ve nailed great image capture down marketing, connecting with your clients, staying ahead of product trends, etc., are all important. I’ll talk through a few of those in the coming weeks. It’s just that it all starts here and when you think about it that makes sense.