We all look at the most successful photographers and wonder what would it take to “be them”. There are some things that we can point to with certainty that are the key to their success. Skills, intelligence and very importantly, discipline.
You have probably heard the phrase “Work smarter, not harder”. My experience has shown that most successful photographers actually do both, They are definitely hard workers, but they work smart by embracing a set of values and adopting behaviors that help them accomplish their goals and dreams.
I routinely talk with photographers who are frustrated and struggling to improve their work. These are people who are very serious about improving their photography, and they continue to convince themselves that they need to spend more time and money to take yet another class or classes or workshop. When I dig deeper into their situations, they almost always admit that they have watched loads of videos, taken other classes and honestly felt like they had so much information stuffed in their brains that when they picked up their camera, they felt overwhelmed because they just couldn’t remember everything that they have learned. That is — learned by someone telling them — in a book or a video or a class, but not learned by doing — in other words, real experience.
These conversations highlight some bad habits that I find are extremely common in our industry. To list a few of the bad habits, it begins with the basic stuff — not reading the camera manuals and as a result, not understanding your gear, not taking the time to learn the foundational things like Exposure Controls, Depth of Field, Inverse Square Law, and so-on.
But the bad habit that is becoming VERY commonplace today — is too much learning without enough experiencing. There is real science at play here folks — this is not just Joe’s opinion.
There is good logic to the age-old adage that too much knowledge is never a bad thing. Unfortunately, it is old logic that doesn’t account for the technology-driven world that we live in. And science has proven that this over and over again.
You see too much knowledge is actually bad for memory and that is exactly the problem that these photographers are describing to me. Imagine a stack of paper on a desk. That stack of paper represents all the information stored in your brain. Each piece of paper has one bit of knowledge on it. While you only have a few pieces of paper, you can easily remember wherein the stack is the knowledge bit that you are looking for. The bigger the stack gets, the harder it is to remember where different bits of knowledge are and since you don’t review every piece of paper in the stack routinely — you also begin to forget what knowledge is in the stack.
The more knowledge you add to your brain without experiencing that knowledge -you suppress much of the memory that is already there, making it harder to access. You see adults are experiential learners. By experiencing something you involve more of your senses and each of those senses create memories that are integrated — making them more powerful memories and making them easier to access in the future.
The moral here is that you won’t find success without doing. Thinking about it, dreaming about it and learning about it — without doing it — doesn’t count and won’t make you better. Successful people get the job done.
The 9 behaviors that great photographers embrace
- Regardless of their age and their level of experience, they are always excited to learn. But learning to them is not just listening or reading or watching. For great photographers learning almost always involves new experiences.
- They have the belief that whatever they see or imagine, they can make a photograph of it. This confidence comes from having a familiarity with their gear. The kind of familiarity that comes from making smart and informed gear purchases, reading instruction manuals, and actually practicing. This confidence comes from not being hung up on technique, and in addition to being familiar with their gear, they clearly understand the limits of their gear and their own skills. Believe me — being honest with yourself about what you know and don’t know will save you from making some huge mistakes.
- They understand the difference between “seeing” something and “looking” at something. Research by cognitive psychologists has proven that 75% of all sighted people are blind. We look at things, but we do not see things. Success as a photographer requires developing an acute eye for details. Great photographers also have developed an ability to perceive or imagine the outcome of a photo and what it will require to make that happen — before they pick up the camera.
- In addition to seeing details they have developed an ability to see and understand the intricacies of light. Being great at lighting does of course require understanding exposure and the Inverse Square Law, but it also requires developing the ability to see the nuances. I would argue that great lighting comes from the ability to master the nuances — the subtleties of light. In order to master this skill, you need to learn about emotion in lighting and how lighting impacts mood and perception.
- They compose an image by instinct and not by rules. Logical rules apply — no art world rules like a rule of thirds or spirals, I am talking about the simple concept of include everything that needs to be there and exclude everything that you don’t want to be there or that doesn’t need to be there. This is the power of selectivity, but it requires paying attention to the details — in real time. Also, important to their approach to composition is the idea of composing in camera — not doing it later in Photoshop. Henri Cartier-Bresson was quoted as explaining “…it is seldom indeed that a composition which was poor when the picture was taken can be improved by reshaping it in the darkroom.”
- They are flexible in their approach to their subject. Every photographer develops a style, but great photographers are not lazy. They embrace change and uniqueness. They are able and willing to improvise. They understand that all great photography is the result of excellent problem solving skills.
- They understand and embrace the value of preparation for a shoot. Great photos aren’t made by just showing up and seeing what happens. Great photos are the result of great prep. Great prep takes away the stress and creates a situation where you are able to be creative and think outside the box.
- They are their own toughest critic. Their goal is to produce work of the highest quality possible. They are self-aware and avoid repeating themselves or copying others and are ruthless in their visual editing, always striving for an end result that is strong. Just to be clear about the phrase visual editing — I am not referring to Photoshop — I mean visual editing in the sense of include everything that needs to be there and exclude everything that you don’t want to be there.
- They are free from the dogma of rules and expectations of others in their field. They answer only to themselves, their subjects and their clients.
For a better understanding of #9 – Watch this video: If you want to find success as a photographer STOP ASKING FOR OPINIONS!
Let me give you one bonus trait… Great photographers aren’t afraid of failure. They chase perfection but don’t want to achieve it. If you ever achieved perfection — what would you do for an encore? They chase perfection as a way of setting standards for themselves to always improve and always impress with their work.
One thing is for sure, great photographers aren’t born great. They don’t inherit their skills and their success wasn’t given to them. They are disciplined, hard workers. Hopefully, you will begin to implement these habits in your photography and achieve the level of success that you desire.
About the Author
Joe Edelman is an Olympus Visionary photographer and educator with a photography career spanning five decades. You can find out more about Joe on his website and be sure to check out his videos on YouTube. This article was also published here and shared with permission.