The habits of successful photographers, part I

15_8B29622 stormcloud
Sormcloud, or an image for me and me alone. I like it, regardless of what anybody else thinks: the ability to create this to my liking, present it and not give a damn is quite high on the elements I’d consider photographically ‘successful’.

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is ‘how do/did I/you make a career from photography?’ People are inevitably displeased when I tell them there is no formulaic answer or one size fits all – for the simple reason that each set of circumstances is different, and the industry keeps changing at an ever more rapid pace. The question itself probably needs to be broken down into two portions anyway: being a successful photographer is not the same as being a commercially successful photographer, though there can and usually is some significant overlap. If the definition of success – at least from an artistic point of view – is to make images that oneself is happy with, then it’s somewhat easier to define a roadmap here – and we will do so below. If it’s seeking popular affirmation, then I’m the wrong person to ask else I’d be shooting cats/ bikinis/ coffee etc. with a million filters. As for the commercial part – I’ve served enough repeat clients and communicated with enough pros at the top of their game to be able to identify things we all do in common; whilst it’s not a guaranteed recipe, it’s probably a good starting point. Hopefully some of you might find it useful. MT

The photography part

Practice. Practice implies not just repetition but continual conscious assessment; this is necessary in order for improvement. It’s easy to theoretically be able to do something, but quite something else to actually do it. However, with enough repetition and variation, your experience tends to cover the gaps and make up for any contingencies. Beyond this, it’s impossible to become familiar with techniques or equipment without practice; the executional portion of photography has to become muscle memory before you have enough visual ‘language’ to tackle the creative part consistently.

Work from the idea. You should have some vision in your mind of how the end result should look before taking the photo; even if it’s not necessarily defined enough to sketch out. Without this, you can’t effectively plan a staged shoot, nor do you know what you’re looking for in a candid one. The idea is the reference against which the work in progress has to be assessed, iterated, and improved. Similarly, everything else – technique and equipment choices – should be secondary to support the idea. Think in terms of themes or projects if this helps with the mental segregation of ideas. Ideally, you should also consider the end output, too: medium format is probably overkill for street photography that’s only going to go to instagram, but an iPhone is probably not ideal for large landscape prints.

Balance experimentation and curation. This is a subset of the practice dictat: curation helps you to assess what worked and what didn’t, and what to do to improve the next image. Controlled variation – i.e. experimentation – is required to define the range of possibilities which can then be assessed according to the intended idea. But too much experimentation and not enough curation just results in volumetric overload and images that don’t even get looked at, Winograd-style, and too few images results in nitpicking things that don’t matter and missing the big picture (emperor’s-new-clothes or forum-pixel-peeper-style). Put another way: if you haven’t tried all ice cream flavours, how do you know for sure which ones you like most?

Be critical. Though it is often said ‘we are our own worst critics’ – it isn’t true for everybody. It’s not easy to be objective about your own work; either we tend to be overly critical or not critical enough, resulting in either demotivation or self-congratulation and mediocrity. I’m a malcontent by nature and tend to fall into the former camp; everything can always be better. If it can’t, and we have already produced our best work, why do we keep shooting?

Only care what the end client thinks. Opinions are like noses: everybody has one, and not all are pretty. Ultimately, photographs are subjective, and such subjectivity is highly personal. The only opinion you really need to care about is that of the intended audience: for commercial photography, it’s simple: whoever is paying your bills (and ideally, you – though this is not always the case). For personal photography, it’s equally simple: you. Most people tend to confuse this however and land up seeking affirmation from social media family friends etc. who may not necessarily be knowledgeable, objective, or even unbiased. In short: do you like your image? If so, why, so you can use those traits to improve a future photograph; if not, why not, so you can avoid them?

Technique and hardware are only tools. I can’t stress this enough. I’m sure somebody will cite my purchases and accuse me of hypocrisy and gear-obsession, but the reality is I pick the right tool for the job, and that’s it. If the job is for clients demanding large files or large prints, I need as much image quality as I can get. If I want a sense of transparency, I need dynamic range and color accuracy (and resolution proportional to output). If it’s documentary, then responsiveness and stealth come first. If it’s personal pleasure, then the haptics matter. And in any case, I need to have confidence in the equipment and method. There’s a lot of experimental stuff I’ll try when not under pressure – which might yield one good image out of a hundred – but until these techniques are refined, I’ll never use them on a job because we we simply are not given that kind of latitude.

Be prepared. This encompasses several things: keeping your eyes open and always looking for subjects/ compositions even if your purpose isn’t to shoot; having a camera with you and ready to go to take advantage of opportunities that might arise; being familiar enough with your hardware that you don’t miss a shot because of setting fumbles and button/menu unfamiliarity. Even if you use them extensively, it’s very difficult to be familiar with more than three different control paradigms simultaneously – there seems to be a limit to muscle memory.

Don’t force it. Don’t shoot if you don’t feel like shooting. The pressure is usually counterproductive to creativity – especially if there’s no professional obligation to produce an image. It’s impossible to be continuously inventive in the same medium all the time. Fortunately it isn’t a problem for most hobbyists as life and day jobs get in the way; for pros we have admin and debt collection.

Part two continues with the (much longer) commercial part…


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  1. Tuco Ramirez says:

    The weld-grind shot gives that, “created something out of nothing” satisfaction. It’s not going on a billboard with an Audi, but you know it’s good and some others might see it as pretty clever, too. You know you’re ‘there’ when you can walk down any street and get a good shot.

    (I can’t remember the name of the NatGeo photo editor, but he flipped a obviously good photo taken by a proud amateur back and said, “Nice shot. My folks can take half a dozen a day that good, every day.”)

    • Actually, there was a billboard I did for Audi that the client was happy with that honestly…I didn’t like as much as the weld-grind; but I got paid and shot more cars, so all was well.

      NG editor: ouch!

  2. Really a well said and succinct summary. I will take it to heart for myself and I’ll definitely save this to share with others who are thinking about how to go to the “next level”, whatever that might mean to them.

  3. Gurushankar Subramanian says:

    Hi the link to part-2 is broken. Could you check please?

  4. The photo has a big impact, the overall impression is great. A photo you leave hanging on the wall for years, because it does not get boring. Not much like this is being made.

  5. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    LOL – “Opinions are like noses: everybody has one, and not all are pretty.” I love that remark, Ming – can I borrow it, and use it from time to time? Sometimes I find myself surrounded by people suffering from a severe form of “opinionitis”, and I need all the ammo I can lay my hands on, to blow them apart!

    As always – brilliant article – and there’s YOUR answer as to why you are successful. In my case, it’s never going to happen – I take photographs because I want to, and not to please anyone else. I generally don’t show them to anyone else anyway, because very few people seem to appreciate my photos – they all think I should have done something quite different, and my response has always been “but what you are complaining about is the fact that I DID do something different!” Not looking for sympathy – I’m sure it’s self inflicted, if it’s supposed to be “misery” – I mention it solely because out there, there are literally millions of people like me who enjoy photography, do their own thing, will never be recognised as “great” photographers, and why on earth should they? Whatever is wrong with them doing their own thing, provided they put at least some effort into doing it well?

    I loved the fact you started with “practice”. For me, “practice” blurs with “experimentation” – and the rescue party arrives with “curation” and “be[ing] critical”. That’s when I defy the laws of physics and really jump on myself – that’s the point when I really begin to sense that I AM improving my photography – that’s the point after which my next shoot results in a substantial reduction in the amount of effort needed during post processing, before I can produce an acceptable print.

    One point I think worth noting in this context – Ming, your photos would generally be printed (after selecting ther keepers, during criticism & curation), but I am now being told that something ridiculous like 99% of all photos being taken nowadays never are printed – never leave the digital form in which they were created. Some people post process them – others just live with what they captured, SOOC. This stuff makes my head hurt – maybe I’m just too old to fall in lover with Facebook & Twitter & Instagram and so on. To me, it becomes a photograph when it IS printed. And it’s at that point that I critique my photos, or perhaps “curate” them. (A bit of critiquing certainly takes place during post processing, but the more serious decisions only take place on reviewing a print).

    And I think that’s important. It’s not something I imagine has much/any relevance to professional photographers, but when an amateur photographer wants to review a photo, it’s rather pointless while it’s still only available in some form of digital media, viewed on a screen with about as many pixels as the earliest DSLRs, in a form which is back lit, on a screen which is not colour corrected . . . .

    Sigh – so many gifted photographers have said so many times, that more gear/more expensive gear does NOT take the photo – and that a good photographer can take a good photo (a SERIOUSLY “good” photo!), with ANY camera. Thankfully, people suffering from an attack of GAS cannot buy technique, so they simply have to roll up their shirt sleeves like everyone else, and work harder, in order to become better photographers. If on the other hand they have too much money and are happy spending it, subsidising the camera industry, so that everyone else in the world has a wider range of better gear to choose from, then we should simply be grateful to them for their assistance.

    And “be prepared”? No this does not mean we’re all expected to join the Boy Scouts! Every time I go out the front door without a camera, I miss a photographic opportunity. I don’t care if I just grab a “point & shoot” or my Canon PowerShot, instead of a DSLR with a 2Kg lens – I just feel lost with NO camera, and lose too many opportunities if I don’t have one with me. It doesn’t mean I end up with zillions of photos – but it does mean I end up with “better” photos. Why? – because IC – or to translate that, because whenever I have a camera with me, my eyes are constantly looking – and seeing. And because THAT is what gives me my best photos – training my eyes, and constantly seeing, analysing, reviewing. Not with a cellphone (although I’m sure they take very nice shots, and so on . . . ) – but using a camera. Why? – because the discipline of using a camera enhances the quality of the photo in a way that a cellphone simply cannot. There are far more controls on a camera – far more things to think about. Cellphones are designed with the opposite shooting methods in mind – to encourage people to pay heaps of money for a phone that can take their photos for them. Call me a Luddite – thanks very much, all the same, to Apple and Samsung et al. – but I prefer to take my OWN photos. At least that way I can only blame myself, if they are a disaster!

    • ” love that remark, Ming – can I borrow it, and use it from time to time? “
      Be my guest, it isn’t mine at all – I merely changed ‘noses’ from a lower orifice…

      Actually, I don’t think it’s a formula nor am I successful compared to a lot of other photographers out there – it’s merely my best knowledge as to what has worked for me so far (I think!). I’d go one step further: it almost doesn’t matter what you produce so long as you are happy with it (for most people). For those of us who make a living from it, then it doesn’t matter what we produce so long as the clients like it; though ‘the clients like it’ is a very loaded statement that also involves much more – you may need to do work you are happy with for it to be distinctive and have perceived value, for instance – not merely clone what’s popular at a given point in time.

      Even though I probably print more than most…I am almost embarrassed to admit that 99% are still never printed. Part of that is the nature of the assignment sometimes, and part of it is a lack of wall space, or the fact that many of the images are merely for my own enjoyment and do not need to be shown. In some cases, it serves as a mnemonic to remember a scene or event or person. This may sound conflicting with some of my previous statements, but a really great image should still hold (even if not at full strength) when not viewed in an ideal medium.

      We all suffer GAS, but the motivations matter: is the lust/gear the end goal, or does it enable the end goal? The latter is creatively healthy, the former isn’t.

      Lastly: ‘be prepared’ can also mean actively seeing and not writing off an attempt at composition simply because all you have is your phone – I shoot quite a lot with my phone and compose no differently… 🙂

  6. Kristian Wannebo says:

    That Stormcloud photo of an electric welding (?) is wonderful!

  7. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Especially: “Don’t force it. Don’t shoot if you don’t feel like shooting.”

    So one shouldn’t forget the occasional (coffee) break!
    Whether one’s photographing (even on familiar ground) or just walking around in a new environment, the brain will need a pause to digest all the new experience.
    The hunger for photographing will reawaken!

    ( When on an excursion a friend of mine used to say “C, C, C” – for “Coffee, culture, coffee”.)

    So I (an amateur) guess also the professional needs to plan for creative pauses, especially on more complex assignments.

    • I wish I could say we have time for pauses – usually not; usually the thinking and pre-planning and re-thinking is done in advance of the assignment, and then it largely goes out the window once you hit the set because not everything is as expected – especially working in situations where you cannot control lighting. Then we land up improvising, but at least we have a starting point…the downtime tends to be spent either in administration or comatose on aircraft. But yes, ideally one works at a more leisurely pace and has time to listen to the gut rather than follow a commercial formula…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        I guess the customer – who knows the subject matter by heart – has a hard time to understand that the photographer – to whom the subject matter might be new or unfamiliar – may need pauses…

        • Actually sometimes it might be the opposite – especially in corporate. The customer has no real interest in the subject beyond ‘the job’, whereas the photographer might – and might be able to bring something new that the customer often simply doesn’t see or care about.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            In Sweden we say “hemmablind”,
            literally: ~”home blind”.
            (being so close to it that you can’t see it any more)

  8. Hello Ming !
    Thanks for excellent article.
    Most impressive part (for me) was ” Only care what the end client thinks.”


  1. […] from Part one. Today’s post concludes with an examination of the commercial part: whilst there is a good […]

  2. […] from Part one. Today’s post concludes with an examination of the commercial part: whilst there is a good […]

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