ďIt is survival of the fittest, but the fittest is the best marketer,
best communicator, best ﬁnancial manager, best adapter to
new technology, best businessperson, not necessarily the most
creative or best photographer.Ē
ó JIM PICKERELL
Depending on the type of photography you do, the amount of physical work required
might be more or less than what other photographers have to do to get an image. If
you are an adventure photographer, the sweat factor might be incredibly high because
it takes some serious work just to get into position to get the shot. If you are a studio
photographer, there may not be that much physical work involved, but there might
be a lot more experimentation required to figure out new lighting scenarios and how
to get the exact shot of a certain object that the client requires.
In the end it all boils down to how motivated you are. I am obsessed, if you canít tell.
And Iíve been obsessed with photography as a profession and a passion for over 15
years. I donít know if that obsession is good or bad (sometimes itís a bit of both), but
it motivates me to work extremely hard to expand my abilities, market my work, and
create new and exciting images. To make it as a pro, I need to work harder and more
efficiently than the next guy. Otherwise, Iíll lose my job to someone who is more
motivated than I am. This is where that obsession comes in handy.
Hard Work is a Major Factor in Improving Your Photography Skills
Of course, being passionate or even obsessed about your photography isnít just for
those trying to make a living with a camera. Many photography amateurs churn out
incredible imagesósome of which are much better than some professionals produce.
For them, photography is a hobby, but not just any hobby. It is obvious that it is their
passion, and they are driven by that passion to produce amazing images. No matter
what the motivation is, passion and obsession are key factors that can motivate all
photographers and help to propel them and their work to the next level.
Excellent images also have a time requirement. After all, you do have to be there to
get the image. As the old saying goes, You get out of it what you put into it. The more
time you put into your photography, the more images you will have that showcase your
efforts. As with anything else in life, you have to pay your dues. Perhaps Iím beating
this point to death, but this is an extremely important aspect of improving your skills.
If you really want to create stellar images, working hard at your craft is by far the most
important of the six factors I discuss here.
Passion drives you to learn about every aspect of a hobby or obsession. It drives you
to do research and teach yourself what you need to know to create a certain outcome.
Right now, Iím immersed in projects that not only require me to create still images,
but also top-quality video (aka motion) footage. Because I have very little experience
shooting and editing motion footage, Iíve partnered with a production company that
has the expertise to produce top-quality footage. The video editors there also edit and
package that footage for my clients. I act as the director because I know what I want
the end product to look like. I have an eye for composition, just not the technical skill to pull it off at the level I want yet. Even so, I donít sit around and just let the production company do all the work. With every assignment, I am learning how the motion
cameras work, what lenses and camera movements are appropriate for each type of
shot, and how to edit the footage afterwards. Even if I never edit footage for a client,
by understanding the process, it helps me to make better decisions while on location
shooting the next promotional video.
As I discussed in the previous section, passion and personal ambition are what drives
people to work hard and improve their work. A big part of that improvement comes
from setting goals and tracking your progress. That smoldering passion for your craft
is the fire that motivates you to work hard, but unless you set some goals and stick to
the vision you have for your work, that smoldering passion will be just that, a smoldering pile of nothing. Hence, I heartily recommend making a list of your short-term
and long-term goals. Put that list on your wall or somewhere you can see it every day.
Those goals are the measuring stick youíll use to gauge your progress. Without them,
you can be certain that your work will stagnate.
Since day one as a professional, Iíve posted a list of goals for the year on my office wall
just above my desk, and I refer to them often. They are goals that I have spent a lot of
time thinking about. These yearly goals are my short-term goals and include items such
as how much money I want to make that year, targets for my marketing campaigns,
the type of clients I want to work for (named specifically on the list of goals), camera
equipment I need to purchase, new skills I need to master, how much I want to add
to my retirement account, and so on. I try to be as specific as possible with this list.
For example, one of my goals for a number of years was to have a feature article
published in Digital Photo Pro magazine about my work. In December 2011, that goal
was realized when Digital Photo Pro published a feature article about my work in the
year-end ďMastersĒ issue. That article was beyond anything I had ever dreamt possible. The article referred to me as a ďMaster of Adventure.Ē It was an honor to be
included in the ďMastersĒ issue, especially since I was included alongside a few icons
in the photo industry. That article not only fulfilled one of my short-term goals, but it
was also an incredible marketing piece. In the few months since it was published, Iíve
received a few assignments that were a direct result of the article. Now my job is to
make sure that I live up to the hype. I donít want that article to be the apex of my career.
My short-term goals are derived from my long-term goals. I have a five-year plan, which
I will admit at the moment needs some revising. That five-year plan dictates where I want my career and business to be in the next five years. Without the five-year plan,
it would be difficult to write my short-term goals because my short-term goals are a
series of smaller steps that will help me achieve my long-term goals. The long-terms
goals incorporate my vision for where I want to go with my career and what direction
I want to take with my work. An few examples of the items on my old five-year plan
include becoming a master photographer who is comfortable using studio lighting
and any and all digital camera formats; shooting three or four (at a minimum) major
ad campaigns per year; and working on assignment with Nikon to promote one of its
new cameras. Because all of these goals have been met and are continually being met
currently, it is high time I come up with a new five-year plan.
To get you started on developing your list, here are some questions to ask yourself
that should help you create your long-term and short-term goals:
- What do you want to do with your photography?
- How much money do you want to make?
- What type of clients do you want to work with? Name them specifically.
- What are your creative goals? What type of images do you want to produce?
- What type of images can you realistically produce?
- Does your current body of work show the type of images you want to produce?
- Is your website up to par? How can you improve it?
- Is your branding and marketing working? Can you improve it?
- Who are your real competitors? Whose work inspires you?
- In the larger industry landscape how do you fit in? Do your images set you
apart, or are you just one of many who produce similar work in your genre?
- If you are not unique, how can you create new still images (or video
productions) that will set you apart?
- What specific type of images do you need to add to your portfolio?
- Are there any key pieces of gear you need to create those unique images?
Can you rent it, or do you need to purchase it?
- What are your personal goals outside of your business?
- If you already had a five-year plan, assess how well youíve done.
What goals, if any, have you achieved?
For amateur photographers who want to improve your skills, listing your goals is still
very important because they give you a reference to measure where and how you
need to improve your skills, and what you need to be working on. This might seem
pedantic, but writing down a list of goals forces you to think about what you want to
do with your photography, where you want to take your craft, and how to create your
vision for your work. Without a list of goals, I can almost guarantee that you will not
improve your skills or progress.
Some people perceive professional photographers as just sitting back, sipping a few
mai tais, talking on the phone all day, and having the work come to them. (See the
chart below for an example of what I mean.) That may be the case for
some photographers, but Iíve yet to meet them. Most of usóscratch thatóall of us
are always hustling to get the next assignment and make ends meet. When I started
out, just making a living was a constant struggle. I knew from talking with working
pros and reading up on this profession that it would take 10 to 20 years to really make
it as a pro. It certainly doesnít happen overnight. You have to put in your time to learn
all the ins and outs of this trade.
To make it as a professional, you have to be professional. That means showing up on
time, being courteous and easy to work with, being able to take on a job and accept
the risk and consequences of failure, being good with the details, and making sure your
clients get what they need. Working as a pro photographer, youíll also need to be a
jack-of-all-trades. Youíll have to market yourself, network with potential and existing
clients, maintain your equipment, deal with taxes and accounting tasks (or have a
professional do it for you), and deal with a myriad of other important duties that are
part and parcel of the life of a professional photographer. This career path carries with
it a lot of uncertainties and tons of pressure to make things happen financially and
otherwise. On top of the basic responsibilities, professional photographers tend to
travel a lot. I spend approximately five to six months a year out of the office. Travelling
that much can wear you down and can take a huge toll on your family life.
I created this chart, which has been tailored to my own experiences, to show how professional
photographers really spend their time. The time percentages for a photographer in a different genre
may vary from these numbers. The numbers are a guesstimate of what percentage of my time is
spent doing each task, but they are fairly accurate. Note that I spend a lot more time editing and
processing images than I do shooting them.
Iím not trying to talk anyone out of pursuing photography as a career if that is what
you really want to do. But know this: To make it in this profession, you must want it
more than almost anything else in life. A good analogy is the life of an Olympic athlete.
They sacrifice a lot so they can train as hard as is physically possible. Just making it to
the Olympics is a huge accomplishment, and actually winning a medal is something
most Olympic athletes never accomplish. Becoming a Michael Phelps is even harder
and requires an incredible willpower and talent that 99.9999 percent of people donít
have. Turning your passion into a profession is no different. Youíll have to sacrifice to
make it happen. That new 72-inch plasma HDTV will have to wait. Youíll have to put
all of your resources, time, and money into your burgeoning career.
Working as a professional photographer also requires thick skin and persistence.
Youíll get rejected on a daily basis if youíre really putting your work out there. And
thatís fine. You wonít always have the perfect images for every client. You have to
choose your battles carefully. Marketing yourself is a lesson in perseverance. Many
clients will wait to hire you for an assignment until they see you have stuck it out for
a few years. That lets them know you are serious, and in that time, theyíll have been
able to see a variety of your work shot for other clients. Often, it is who you know that
gets you the job rather than how talented you are. Similarly, it is often the person in
the photograph that sells the image more than how good the image actually is. That
is just the reality of this industry.
With all the difficulties and rejections, it can be difficult to stay focused on your vision
for your work. It is tough to think about your vision when the mortgage is due. For
that reason, it is very important to find mentors and friends who will inspire you and
with whom you can commiserate. Professional photography organizations, like the
American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), the Professional Photographers
of America (PPA), and the American Photographic Artists (APA), are all excellent organizations, where you can find a mentor and get a better understanding of the industry. The ASMP website alone is a treasure trove of good information.
Iím not advocating that everyone needs to pursue a career as a professional photographer. If I knew what I know now when I started out, Iím not sure I would have chosen
this profession as a career. That isnít to say that I havenít found great pleasure and
satisfaction in my career, but that had I known how difficult it would be to make a living in this profession, I would have thought long and hard before going for it. I might
have chosen instead to use my degree and pursue a career in physics. If you are an
amateur and are passionately pursuing photography on your own time, it wonít necessarily become more enjoyable by turning pro. In fact, it might turn out to be much
less enjoyable depending on what you have to shoot to make ends meet financially.
Now that Iíve waxed on and on about the harsh realities of working as a professional
photographer, let me balance that out with some of the positive aspects of this profession. Obviously, there is great satisfaction in running your own business and watching
it grow. Itís also amazing to be able to pursue your passion full time. And Iíll be the first
to say that Iíve been able to travel to some incredible locations and see unbelievable
feats of athleticism that I never would have seen had I become a physicist. My life is
truly an adventure. I have no set office schedule. I work out of my home. I decide which
assignments I want to take or at least which ones I can accept, given my workload. I
have little or no idea where my next paycheck will come from more than three or six
months out, but I trust that it will come. The life of a professional photographer is
quite glamorous on occasion, but in reality those moments are few and far between.
And more often than not, those glamorous moments are preceded by an incredible
amount of hard work to make them happen.
Know Thy Craft
If you want to excel at photography, you need to know your craft. By that I mean you
need to be an expert in everything that pertains to photography or at the very least
your genre of photography. The best action you can take if you want to advance in
any field is to learn how to learn. If you have the capacity to problem solve, you can
teach yourself just about anything. That ability is worth its weight in gold. The most
valuable skill I learned in university was the ability to think logically about a problem
and analyze it. By assessing a problem logically and practicing that skill for five years
on very difficult math and physics problems, I learned that I could figure out just about
anything with enough time and effort. That skill and confidence have come in handy
quite often in the course of my career.
Photography at its core is a matter of solving a set of problems. What is the right exposure? What focal length achieves the perspective I want? How can I focus the camera
efficiently to get the shot? If I am going for a specific look, how do I need to process
the image to achieve that look? When you break down each task, itís easy enough to
answer each question. The trick is to answer all of those questions instantly, on the
spot and under pressure, when the image presents itself. Gaining the experience to
solve problems quickly, whether it is finding the right exposure or using artificial light
to augment the existing light, is just a matter of practice. When Iím trying out new lighting setups, I perfect them on my own
before I use those techniques on an assignment when Iím under pressure.
When I think of mastering a skill, an analogy that comes to mind is learning to play the
guitar. It is one thing to learn how to play a few cords on a guitar; it is quite another to
be able to play a guitar with the familiarity of a master like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric
Clapton. In their case, the instrument has become an extension of themselves. They
could express any emotion with their guitar just as easily as you or I can make sounds
with our mouths. Applying that analogy to photography, if you havenít mastered the
basics of composition, exposure, and postprocessing, it will be very difficult to create
excellent work. Even if you have mastered the basics, it will take years of experimentation to understand all the possibilities for each shooting scenario and then decide
which one will work best for the images you are producing at that moment. And just
in case you are wondering, Iím still learning what works and what doesnít on every
shoot. The learning never stops.
This image is a good example of learning a new technique. I love the way a tilt-shift lens can isolate
the subject when used effectively. For the last year, Iíve been experimenting with tilt-shift lenses and
learning how to use them. Mastering a tilt-shift lens is not rocket science. The lenses are fairly easy
to use, but it takes practice to master them. This image was shot with a Nikkor PC-E 45mm f/2.8
Once youíve mastered the basics, that is when creativity and your artistic aesthetic
come into play. It is only then that you can concentrate fully on the subject, your
composition, and the final image. At that point, the camera becomes an extension of
your eye, and you are using it to create the concept (or a version of the concept) that
you imagined before the shoot. If you are a photojournalist who isnít setting up the
scene, mastering the basics and being very familiar with your equipment allow you
to respond quickly and accurately to what you want to capture.
My final word on this topic is that there are times when it will be better to hire a professional to do something for you than to try to figure it out on your own. Just because
I can figure out something doesnít mean it is a wise use of my time and energy to do
so. For example, if an image needs some serious retouching done in Photoshop and
that work is well beyond my capabilities, by all means Iíll hire a professional to work
up that image to perfectionóespecially if the client is willing to pay for that service.
Likewise, if I want to produce a motion piece that has a helicopter shot of a cyclist
riding through the forest, Iíll hire a person who is skilled with flying mini-helicopters
instead of taking the time to learn how to fly one myself.
Photography workshops are an excellent way to hone your craft. For amateur or professional photographers looking to augment their photography with artificial lightóthat
is, strobes or Speedlightsóyou can spend years figuring it all out on your own, or you
can spend a week at an intensive photography workshop and learn all about it from a
master photographer. In the course of my career Iíve taken two excellent workshops:
one was for website design and the other was with famed photographer Joe McNally.
Joe is an excellent workshop instructor; one of the best anywhere. Years ago when
I was just starting to use strobes, I took his Location Lighting workshop. His workshop
gave me a firm foundation on which to build my lighting skills, and from that I was able
to experiment and perfect a number of lighting techniques. An incredible number of
photo workshops are available nowadays on pretty much any topic you want to learn
about. Each year I teach workshops on adventure sports photography, lighting, digital
workflow, and a variety of other topics.
Talent Is Overrated
Notice that talent is not the first item I discussed. Yes, youíll need some
talent and an eye for composition and lighting to really create strong images, but a
lot of that can be learned. Your success as a photographer, whether professional or
amateur, is not necessarily a matter of talent. Someone with a little talent who works
hard can go much further than someone who has immense talent but lacks a strong
work ethic. In other words, talent is not the limiting factor. Passion, motivation, a solid work ethic, and the ability to learn and problem solve will take you a lot further in this
profession than you might think possible.
When it comes to photography, talent is basically the ability to make sense of a scene
visually with a camera. Hence, people who are artistic are usually good photographers,
but not always. A photographer needs to be able to use both sides of the brain: the
artistic creative side to compose and create an interesting image and the analytical
side to deal with the camera and the technical details of the image-making process.
Some people have the artistic ability but not the analytical ability. Others have the
analytical ability but lack creativity. Without both skills, it is difficult but not impossible
to excel in photography. If youíre lacking either artistic talent or the ability to master
a photographic technique, the good news is that you can work on your weaknesses,
as discussed in the previous section.
In fact, having too much raw talent might even be a hindrance. As a young child,
drawing came very easy to me. At three and a half I drew a quarter on an envelope
and showed it to my mother. She remarked, ĒVery nice tracing, darling,Ē or something
to that effect; I shook my head and informed her it was not a tracing. She made me
draw it again and watched as I drew it the second time almost perfectly. At that age,
I thought everybody could draw objects perfectly. It was a revelation to both of us that
I had a God-given talent. Shortly thereafter, my parents enrolled me in art classes,
which I took in and out of school until I left for university.
But the moral of this story is that I got bored with art. My gift, in some ways, made
it too easy for me. Drawing became a chore instead of a fun activity. As a teenager,
I dabbled in every art form that I could. I tried painting, sculpture, lithography, photography, and even glass blowing. To keep these interests fun, I had to constantly
try new techniques and methods. I eventually burned out, thinking at the time there
was little left for me to learn in those genres. However, photography was the one art
form that stuck with me. It was the mystery in the box. That mystery, as well as the
analytical and creative duality of it, intrigued me and brought me back to it after my
It was also the lure of traveling the world with a camera and documenting my other
passion, rock climbing, that really brought me back to photography. It took me years
of hard work, time, and money to develop and hone my skills as a photographer. And I still have a lot left to learn. Hence, if you have the skills to create a well-composed
and correctly exposed image, the next step is to aim your camera at an interesting
subject matter. Everything else will follow.
The Next Step
Embrace risk. That is the key to improving at anything. Without the willingness to go
down the uncharted path, you will not learn, you will not improve, and you will not
grow. This might sound a little preachy, but it is a life lesson I have learned again and
again as a climber, a mountaineer, and a freelance photographer. Safety is an illusion.
Get over it. You cannot control everything in this world. I have learned to learn from
my mistakes because I learn more from my mistakes than I do from my successes.
When I make a mistake, I own up to it, and then plot how to avoid making that mistake
again. Making a mistake is just part of the learning experience. It makes me aware
of certain possibilities and outcomes. Sometimes it is only by making a mistake that
you stumble onto an unexpected result, or image in this case, and by analyzing that
mistake, you can create a whole new look.
Creative people need risk to ďbreak on throughĒ to the next level; here I am making a reference to one of The Doorsí most popular songs. The musical group creatively pushed
the envelope, were unconventional (in the extreme), and took chances with their music
and lyrics. I use the band as an example only to make the point that if you canít embrace
risk, your images will never be more than mediocre. And that is a sure way to underachieve.
As a climber, a mountaineer, and an adventurer, I implore you to get out and experience
your own adventures. They might just be the best motivator for your photography.
Stepping out of your comfort zone always opens up opportunities to grow. The next
step is to take the knowledge you have learned and put it into practice repeatedly and
as often as possible. Dare to fail. Aim high. Dream up an image you want to create, and
then go out and try to create it. If you donít get the result you want, try again and again
until you do. Practice makes perfect, or at least in photography it makes your images
better. Get inspired, get motivated, and get moving. That is the key to photography.
The quote at the beginning of this says it all if you want to turn pro. It is rarely
the ďbestĒ photographer who makes the most money in this industry.
Safety is an illusion. In this image, Dawn Glanc is leading a very difﬁcult climbing route named
ďChrisí Crash,Ē which is rated M6 WI5, in the upper gorge at the Ouray Ice Park in Ouray, Colorado.
Dawn is obviously exposed to some risk. But that risk is mitigated by her incredible skill as a climber
and by her being smart with how she places ice screws to catch her in the event of a fall.