On Being Generous – With Your Photography and Your Time

I received the following email a few weeks ago:


“Hello, my name is Sam. I am a 7th grade student at _____ Middle School. I am doing an independent project on photography and saw some of your posts. I was wondering if you could give me some tips or anything about photography. Please get back to me as soon as you can. Thanks!”

This was my reply:

“Hi, Sam. Thanks for touching base with me. I’d love to be able to give you some tips for your project, but I think you need to narrow down your question a bit. Simply asking me for tips on “anything about photography” doesn’t give me enough information. For example, I have no way of knowing how much you already know. If you can send me a list of specific questions regarding things like exposure, composition, etc., I’ll see what I can do to help you out. Best, –J.”

When I was practicing law a lifetime or two ago I was fortunate enough to have a few people in my corner who were willing to throw open the vault and share everything with me. Legal questions, business practices, which courthouse clerks were likely to do you a favor every once in a while. It was my first lesson in professional networking, but it was also my first lesson in professional generosity– and the realization that the two are not the same thing.

With law, everything had an adversarial aspect to it. That might have been one of the reasons I finally got out of it after 14 years. I usually managed to make and keep friends, even going out for dinner with opposing lawyers while we waited for a jury to come back with a verdict. Networking, at least at the time, really only required mutual professional respect. Generosity, on the other hand, combined that respect with an appreciation for the people within the network. Sometimes, the difference between networking and generosity meant the difference between settling a case or rolling the dice with a trial.

Fast forward. I haven’t seen the inside of a courtroom in ten years. Oddly enough, this is the part of my old life I miss the most. But let’s check in with Sam.

“Okay, I want to know what does it take to be a good photographer? That’s one of my main questions. Right now I am working on Rule of Thirds. Is there anything you can tell me about Rule of Thirds that can help me out?”

Still a bit frustrated with Sam’s lack of specificity, what I want to say is that my own personal Rule of Thirds dictates that I’m so busy this week that one third of my time is spent on my business and writing commitments; one third is spent on my teaching responsibilities; and a final third is unevenly distributed between my family and maybe a little bit of sleep. I have no thirds left to spend on this.You want simple, straightforward answers to “what does it take to be a good photographer?” in an email?  

Relax, Jeff…He’s 12.

And that’s when I remembered how refreshing it was when I left law for photography, discovering this incredibly creative, collaborative, and generous community. One of the very first photographers I hooked up with was also a “lawyer in recovery.” Between him and a few of his friends, I immediately had not only a network, but a generous one at that. I’ve tried really hard over the past ten years to repay that kindness by helping other photographers– offering technical assistance, working as a last-minute replacement for some, as a sounding board for others, and– of course– everybody wants me to read their contracts.

Here’s the thing– I think we all want to be generous. Okay, maybe not ALL, but definitely most. I know I do.

“Hi, Sam. What it takes to be a good photographer isn’t an easy question to answer in an email. We all approach things differently. A solid understanding of exposure, composition, and lighting are definitely three of the most important aspects of being a good photographer. Does that help? As for the Rule of Thirds, if you understand the idea of creating a more interesting composition by placing your subject at any point in the frame where imaginary tic-tac-toe lines intersect, you’re well on your way. Let me know if this helps. Best, –J.”

I didn’t hear anything back for a while, at which point I decided that my answers must have been helpful.

Not so much.

“Sorry for bugging you some more. I just really need some tips about this. I have watched a few YouTube videos. And if you don’t have any time to tell me some stuff about photography or any tips that’s fine, I just need to know so I can find someone else to talk to about photography and get some tips from. I only have until the end of the month before I have to turn in my project. Thanks, Sam.

By this point I could have probably (and maybe justifiably) reached my frustration point with Sam’s lack of direction and just walked away. Send an email explaining that I’m too busy for this right now. Best of luck on your project. Check Wikipedia. Gotta go.

But one of the reasons I left law in the first place was the burnout of spending all day every day digging people out of some pretty dark places– often of their own creation. Wasn’t I looking for something better? Here was an inquisitive mind. A curious child. Someone who wanted to learn. From me. Was I really too busy for that?

“Sam– I’m emailing you some of the hand-outs that I give the students in my photography class. They cover topics like exposure, lighting, composition, and photo essays. I think you’ll find them helpful for your project. If you still have questions after reading them, we’ll figure something else out. –J.”

How long does it really take to answer an email? Looking at it another way, how long does it take to crush somebody’s interest? Instead of being annoyed at how the questions were presented, I should have immediately looked past it. There were literally thousands of other photographers to whom Sam could have sent his email, but– for whatever reason– he picked me. With that comes a certain level of responsibility. A responsibility to be generous. To share. To teach. I never want to be the photographer– the person– who thinks he’s too busy to find a way to help.

“Thank you so much. They will be a lot of help. –Sam”

“You are very welcome, Sam. Please be sure to let me know how your project turns out. Best, –Jeff.”

Sam, I’m not sure if you’re reading this, but I think I finally have an answer to your first question. What makes a good photographer? It’s not just being talented and creative. It also means being generous– with my time, my knowledge,and my expertise. At least that’s my definition.

  • Katie Bennett

    Thanks for this post. It’s a good reminder to all of us. As a graduate student who’s been an unpaid intern too many times, I can get really tired of being generous.

    I recently did a volunteer project, and it has been difficult working with the clients.

    In my experience, people who get things for free are generally less grateful and more difficult to work with than people who are paying for a service. It’s sort of backwards.

    I think I have the opposite problem. I’ve given so many free services already and given so much of my time to others that I think I need to learn how to say no more often, especially when I’m not being treated with respect.

    I hope it doesn’t make me a bad person, but my policy lately has been “If it’s not worth paying me for–it’s not worth doing.”

    But that just goes for professional services right now like photography sessions. I think if someone approached me for advice I would be thrilled. But I’m not yet at the point where I have as many demands on my time as you have.

    Another thought is that, instead of personally replying to requests for advice, we can just let those questions inspire blog posts and e-mail them the link! :) I know I get stumped sometimes for new post ideas. That way, it’s a win-win. =)

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      All excellent points, Katie. It’s easy to get frustrated. I’m sure you can tell from this that I did harbor some amount of frustration. In all honesty, it’s possible I might have reacted differently to an adult, but with kids we never know what may or may not have an influence on them down the road.

  • Igor Farago

    I love this article and this attitude. Sharing it right now and bookmarking to never forget it. Thank you Jeff

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thank you, Igor, for those incredibly kind words.

  • J Wayne Green

    I feel you showed this young person how a real adult treats others. Of course you were frustrated at first, but by doing something kind for someone you made a difference.
    I try to go out of my way to share with my photog friend, some get it others sadly do not and act selfishly. Thanks for the reminder.