8 Things Every Successful Photographer Does

Episode #226 of the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast

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Table of Contents


8 Things Every Successful Photographer Does

One of the best ways to determine the path to success is to study the paths and careers that the most successful people have taken.

Everyone wants to be successful. The challenge is that too many people choose the wrong definition of success.

Merriam-Webster defines success using these examples:
: degree or measure of succeeding
: favorable or desired outcome
also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence

They also suggest the definition of succeed as :
: to turn out well
: to attain a desired object or en

The WRONG Definition of Success

Ironically I hear from so many young or new photographers — I say young or new because this problem is not due to the naivety of youth. I hear from so many of these beginners that success for them would involve being famous. I have a two word response for those photographers… Reality TV. The overwhelming majority of reality TV participants are people who want to become famous. Instead, they become infamous at best. Guilty of trying to be something they are not for the purpose of becoming adored. Take Americas Next Top Model as an example. Great concept — but how many top models were born from that show? Not one. The reason is simple. What designer or advertiser wants to have a girl represent them who has just spent 13 episodes on TV acting like a complete idiot for the sake of ratings and impressing Tyra Banks? That’s not how success works. You don’t win it in a contest and you don’t wish it like a dream.

Success for me, has always been working to build the skills to build the confidence that I could pick up a camera at will and create an image that measures up to my imagination. That started as a teenager. In fact when I was a teenager, I attended several of the traveling Nikon Schools where they had well known and very accomplished photographers travel the country and teach short courses about all different types of photography. I would watch these photographers and think that it would be so cool to grow up and be them. Not because they were teaching for Nikon, but because of all the incredible places and things they had photographed. I didn’t believe I was good enough to reach that level, but I got up the nerve to ask one of the photographers after one of the events — what it takes to become a Nikon School photographer. I wish I remembered his name, but his answer has stuck with me. He repeated my question back, and then he laughed and told me “If you are serious about photography, you don’t try to become a Nikon School Instructor. You don’t try to win awards. You try to always do your best and you make sure that you are never completely satisfied with your best. Keep learning, keep working to improve and never settle for something that isn’t better than what you did yesterday.” He went on to say “If you do that long enough and work hard enough — you won’t need to know how to become a Nikon School Photographer because they will come after you.”

And sure enough — he was right. It took me 40 years from that point — and a different camera brand — but here I am. Steve Jobs has been quoted as saying: “If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.”

What are the 8 things that every successful photographer does?

1. They take responsibility

Successful photographers realize that they are the masters of their own fate. You don’t hear them complain about the things that get in their way. They understand that they are the only thing that will make or break their success.

2. They speak to strangers and they embrace small talk

Conversing with strangers is a great way to increase your luck. Period. Connecting with people that we don’t really know… we don’t know who they know or who they are connected to or for that matter what their area of expertise may be. It doesn’t cost anything to speak to people. Grocery checkout lines, airports, vacations, barber shop, anywhere that you encounter people — strike up a conversation — good old-fashioned small talk. Too many people look at small talk as a waste of time. But people who are good at creating their own luck understand that small talk is a great way to establish rapport that will lead to a relationship that can lead to a game-changing opportunity.

I am a people photographer. Except for a short stint shooting products for advertising, people have always been my subject and it is virtually impossible to be a great people photographer without being a willing communicator.

3. They eavesdrop as well as listen

An early mentor taught me that if you are not listening, you are not learning simply because you can’t learn without listening. This was excellent advice. I have since learned that eavesdropping, even when it may not necessarily be socially appropriate can be very valuable. There have been many times sitting in a restaurant or in a checkout line that eavesdropping has presented an opportunity for me to make an introduction and eventually get work. There have been numerous times when eavesdropping at a convention or trade show has not only led to me making a valuable connection but also allowed me to overhear an idea or concept that I may not have previously considered.

4. They act on their frustrations

We all get frustrated and people have very different ways of reacting to frustrations. Some give-up. Others run away. Some fight back. Successful people just get on with things — they take action. I have never met a photographer who doesn’t become frustrated with their work or the progress they are making. Successful photographers don’t dwell on that frustration they act on it. Maybe it requires learning a new technique. Maybe just more practice. Maybe changes to the approach. Regardless of the solution a successful photographer is one who will seek out the right solution.

5. They offer and ask for help

Nobody does it alone. Period. I have never met a successful photographer who has achieved his or her success without utilizing the help of others. On the flip side, being willing to offer help or support to someone is a sign of compassion and being able to ask for help and offer help is the foundation for successful networking and building client relationships.

6. They stray from the path

There is no one guaranteed path to success for any photographer. Mainly because as we established — only you can define success. Never let someone else define your success. Many successful photographers I know have held other careers early in life. Many successful photographers I know have evolved from shooting one genre to finally finding their defining success in a completely different genre. Many successful photographers will take on projects that have nothing to do with their regular type of work, strictly for the purpose of exploring new creative possibilities and learning new skills.

7. They take risks and they accept failure

As a teenager working towards a career in photojournalism, I learned that a good photojournalist should shoot first and ask questions later. In my twenties I learned that you can’t print the images you don’t take. There are so many excuses that photographers come up with for not taking a shot. The light isn’t right. I couldn’t get close enough. I didn’t have the right lens. Failure is the best learning process in life. Successful people aren’t afraid to fail and when they do they treat that failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.

As I have grown older and more experienced, I have learned to embrace failure as a way to be creative by making it a habit to experiment with ideas that I have been taught won’t work — and then searching for unique and unusual solutions to those problems. One of my favorite pieces of advice to photographers. . . Don’t be afraid to suck! But don’t ever be okay with failure. Always use failure as an opportunity.

8. They say ‘yes’ often

I’ve read so many articles where productivity experts say don’t be afraid to say NO. Indeed, we only have 1,440 minutes in a day so you have to be careful about wasting them. Saying yes, can be a risk. It can also lead to great rewards.

I find the biggest reason that people get themselves in trouble by saying yes — is that they didn’t take the time to properly consider the benefits and outcomes. Instead, they were lazy and only heard what they wanted to hear. Kind of like when someone says — I don’t have a budget to pay you but my second cousin is the photo editor of Vogue, and she will see the photos that you take. And then you — instead of being honest with yourself that your work is not at Vogue level and instead of asking enough questions to realize this project that you are being asked to photograph will not produce images that look anything like what appears in Vogue — you say yes and then waste your time — only to complain about it later. Before you complain — remember number one on my list. Successful photographers take responsibility and don’t complain.

And I do have one bonus tip that should be a life lesson, not a success tip, but I do think it is worth mentioning.

Successful photographers never stop learning

The most successful photographers I know still consider themselves to be students of photography. I am a firm believe that the day I stop learning about photography is the day I have become a dinosaur and my work will be irrelevant. My learning comes from people. From having conversations with people. Sometimes from books, definitely from conferences and trade shows and almost never from YouTube. When I do find something that I think has value on YouTube, the first thing I do is test it myself to make sure that I understand it and can value it.

In Closing

Let me be very honest with you. I have made plenty of mistakes in my career – based around each one of these suggestions. I share these suggestions with you as a result of my own experience and having interviewed MANY photographers.

Understand that success is YOURS to be had. It is never too late to change your course. It is never too late to learn new tricks. It is never too late to define your own success and then go out and work towards it and achieve it.

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