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How to Become a Successful Photographer

Introduction

When I first became obsessed with photography, one question I constantly asked was how do I become a successful photographer. At the time, I equated success with making money from my photography. Later I came to realise my error, but today I still see others making the same mistakes that I did. If you equate successful photography with the ability to earn money from your work, you should spend your time studying Business and Marketing. If though you equate being a successful photographer with the ability to consistently produce high quality, engaging photography, read on.

Defining Success

If you want to become successful, you need to spend a little time exploring your own definition of success. We all have different starting points in our work and life. What one person might desire, might not satisfy another. You may not agree with my definition of success being the ability to produce consistent, engaging, high quality imagery. You could for example equate success with an event such as winning a major competition, or holding your first solo exhibition, or being accepted by a gallery.

Spend some time getting clear about what success in photography means to you. Don’t try to adopt someone else’s thinking. Get your own thoughts clear and be honest. This is important as it will influence your plans.

Succesful photography example

I consider this a successful photograph but not everyone agrees. Does this make me wrong?

Components of Successful Photography

Let’s assume though that you agree with my definition of being able to consistently produce high quality, engaging photographs. After all, the more you can do this, the easier it’s going to be to achieve other outcomes.

You might not realise it yet, but there are three key components to creating great photography; a sort of equation if you like. These are:

  1. Technical understanding of the camera and your ability to control it.
  2. Image editing skills.
  3. Vision

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Technical Camera Skills

The camera is pretty much a dumb tool. It needs someone to operate. Someone to capture a great photograph. Most cameras have a degree of automation built into them but this is far from perfect. The role of the user is to make the decisions that the camera can’t make for itself. This includes decisions about where to point it. Where to focus. How to frame the subject. What to include and most importantly exclude. How much depth of field should be used. Is the shutter speed important and what should it be?

As you can see, there are a huge number of different aspects to taking a photograph that won’t work if you don’t have the necessary skills to use the camera. Most new photographers make two key errors here:

  1. The assume the camera will do most of the work and that a great camera equates to great images.
  2. They focus almost entirely on how to use the camera, but this probably only accounts for around 20% of the success of the image.

Image Editing Skills

Next comes your skills in image editing. How important an element this is will depend on the type of image you are producing and what style of image you want to create. For example, a street photographer may choose to do very little in the way of enhancement, relying instead on the camera to capture the action. Alternatively, a fine art photographer may need to blend various images with special effects to create their finished work. A good approximation though would be that image editing skills will probably account for 30% of success.

Vision

The most important element in the creation of successful photography is vision, which typically might account for 50% or more of an images success. Often it can be difficult for photographers, particularly new photographers to understand what is meant when we speak about vision. If this is you, the following example may help.

Imagine you are walking through the back streets of New York with largely deserted streets. As you walk you notice an alleyway and see someone standing on the corner, looking a little furtive. Immediately you recognise this as an interesting scene and your mind races to create a story about what this person might be doing; you imagine some sort of shady deal going down. You can now visualise this person partially hidden in the shadows, perhaps with the glow of a street light to one side (even though it’s daylight). This is what vision is about. It’s creating a scene in your mind, a scene that tells a story. That’s the same story your telling yourself as you are imaging the finished image. This story is the message you want to convey to the viewer in your image.

Successful compertition image

This image has done very well in competition. It's featured in the Landscape Photographer of the Year exhibition, book and the 10 year anniversary book. Does this make me a successful photographer? I don't think so.

Personal Assessment

Now you understand the three core elements of successful photography, you can begin to assess your own work, creating a plan to develop yourself. Let’s continue with the example above.

You decide the scene in front of you is perfect and move to shoot the image. Because you have your vision you can easily work out a composition that suits it. You decide to frame the shot so the surroundings of the alley can be seen, allowing the subject to be placed in the viewer’s mind. To do this you select a slightly wide angle of view, using perhaps a 35mm prime. Next consider the question of how much depth of field you need and where your point of focus. Again, because you have a clear vision of the finished image this becomes easy.

Try This Test

Working through all the various options, you should be able to see that vision is driving your decisions about how to use the camera. If you find you can’t capture the image as you imagined it, perhaps you need to work on your technical skills with the camera. If you’re not sure, try this simple test. Pick a selection of random photograph and try to identify three things for each image:

  1. Focal length used.
  2. Point of focus selected by the photographer.
  3. Shutter speed used.

If you find this difficult, you probably don’t understand the technical aspects of your equipment as well as you think you. Learning to quickly identify these variables in other people’s work will help you master the technical skills necessary to capture your vision.

Having captured your image, you now download it to your computer only to be completely underwhelmed. The composition and framing is great but the image doesn’t convey the message and story. It doesn’t convey the story that you imagined. Perhaps you had imagined a night scene with a single street light illuminating the individual whilst the surrounding area is thrown into shadow. When you look at your image you just see someone stood on a street corner in daylight.

This is where your image editing skills are required. You would need to understand how to transform the image into an apparent night scene. You would also need to understand how to create the illusion of the street light being on and casting shadows. But more than that, you need to have the skills to make these changes. It’s easy to know how to do something but doing it is a different matter. It takes practice and perseverance.

Development Plan

I hope you can see now that it’s the interaction of the three key areas that creates a successful photograph:

  • If you lack vision you won’t be able to capture the scene well or create a strong image when editing.
  • When you lack camera skills you won’t capture an image that reflects you vision or allows you to create adjustments that share this with your audience.
  • If you lack editing skills you won’t be able to realise you vision.

Once you understand this, spend some time reviewing your own work. Be honest with yourself and determine your weaknesses. Which of the three elements most needs to be developed and how are you going to do this?

Remember, in every photograph, one of these three factors will be weaker than the others. This is what will limit the success of the image. Also, be aware that you will never create photography where all three elements are perfectly balanced. If you think you have achieved this, you are either deluding yourself or have been lucky. You may have captured an image that exceeds your current level of skill. It’s only when we develop as photographers that we understand enough to recognise the flaws and deficiencies in our own work. If you can’t see the deficiencies you’re not working hard enough.

Conclusion

To become a successful photographer, you need to consistently produce images that demonstrate a strong vision to your audience. That clearly convey a message to the viewer. Providing you have the skills with your camera and image editing tools to do this consistently, your photography will be successful.

If you would like to know more about this subject, consider reading my book "The Photographers Coach".

Image editing example

This image was captured in New York and shows my vision clearly. It was actually captured in the middle of the day and has been heavily edited in Photoshop.

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