Have you ever done this? You're sitting at your computer, or on your phone, scrolling through Pinterest, Instagram or your favorite blog/inspiration website. You're scanning through a flurry of incredible artwork, photographs, paintings or beautiful pieces of writing. You think to yourself, "how the hell did they do that? How do I create something like that? Why am I not as good as these artists?" What's worse is when you see how many people interact with those artists. They have thousands if not tens of thousands of likes, comments and shares. Who are these rockstars, and how can I be like them?
Well, I've been there too. I think we all have. In fact, I'm there right now, as I'm writing this. I'm looking through my own portfolio and thinking, "Why is this work SO terrible? What makes my heroes so much better than me? Why don't I have as many followers as I think I deserve?"
All of these thoughts are relevant, important and understandable. But they're not healthy, unless I redirect the questions and ask them in a different way.
No successful artist, past or present was or is making art so they could be noticed or heralded. They make art for them. They create what they love based on their own personal passion and dedication to their craft.
Self improvement is a cornerstone of being an artist. Wanting to be great isn't a bad thing, but how you get there is a delicate and dangerous process at times. If you're constantly berating yourself and belittling your work like I so often do, you can wind up in a downward spiral that ends in depression and self loathing.
Better questions to ask are: "What can I do to make my work better? What can I learn from my heroes and apply that to my own work? How do I leave a lasting legacy, and make a difference in my community?"
I wish I would have been willing to ask myself questions like that sooner in my path to becoming a photographer. I've been an artist my whole life, from what I can remember. I started drawing and painting when I was 7 years old. I took every advanced class my school offered, and even went to private classes on the weekends to learn more. I was usually the only artistically inclined child in my school, and was voted "most artistic" in high school. My path was set out for me very early in life to become an artist in some capacity. I went to university for graphic design, and it was there that I finally met other people like me. I graduated at the top of my class, immediately set out to be a photographer, and wanted to be the biggest success I possibly could.
All through my life though, up to very recently, my main goal as an artist was to be better than everyone else. I wanted to create amazing work, but not for the sake of it, but for my own credit. I wanted people to recognize me and give me and my work praise. In grade school and high school I made sure everyone could see what I was doing, I constantly showed off my work and often received "attaboys" from my classmates and teachers. In college I did everything I could to one-up my classmates and make them feel at all times like they needed to catch up to me. In my own mind, I considered myself dedicated, but to others around me I probably came off as a major jerk. In my first year out of school I moved to Nashville with a huge chip on my shoulder, thinking everything would fall into place, and that I would start working for my dream clients very quickly.
No surprise, that did not, and still has not happened.
It's the process, not the product
It was made apparent to me immediately that not only did my work suck, but so did my attitude, and I certainly would not be handed anything. I was clearly at the bottom of a very tall totem pole. My dreams of immediately becoming a hot shot photographer were dashed after a few months of miserable unemployment. I was forced to picked up a part time job and started shooting less and less. I started doubting myself and my capabilities, and for good reason. Everyone around me was so much more talented and driven than I was. And that's just in Nashville, a relatively small market. On a national scale, I was/am a very small fish in an ocean of talent. I started assisting for other, more established photographers to make some much needed money. I began to work for some of the bigger names in photography, and even some of my heroes. I set their lights, ran their computers and got them coffee. What I saw and learned from these guys opened my eyes to what it really takes to be successful as a photographer. To say I was put in my place would be an understatement.
I realized that my entitled attitude towards photography was not going to fly. I had to work, and work hard for every little blessing and opportunity. But more than that, I had to do it for the love of the process, and not for me.
Jeff Goins says in his E-book The Beginners Guide to Building an Audience : "Success begins with passion, not chasing results. If you love the work, you'll do good work."
That statement has become a motto for me. I still have goals, and dream jobs. I still have a five year plan and a list of clients I want to shoot for, but the way in which I choose to go about achieving those goals has changed dramatically. I'm putting passion and love first in my work, and putting desire and lust in the back of my mind.
After all, you're not going to be remembered for how much money you made, or who you worked for. Your images, and the quality of your work is what will be remembered. But even more so, the way you treat people, and the way you choose to love people will be your legacy.
Finding your passion
A lot of young artists ask me, "how do I find my own style?" I think this is one of the hardest parts of becoming an artist. We live in a particularly oversaturated world, full of talent and beautiful work. Being an artist, and especially being a photographer, has never been more accessible. So how do you set yourself apart? Well, you have to offer something no one else can... But how?
The answer is more simple than you'd think. You have to create, and create often. You won't find your niche overnight, and you will have to try a great magnitude of processes before you find what suits you best. For me, it was people, and more specifically musicians and entertainers. It took me a while to figure out that that was what I wanted to do though, and I had to shoot a lot of other stuff first. I experimented with architectural photography, live music photography, still life and food, fashion, almost everything.
When you find what suits you best, you then have to make your best better. In the book Art and Fear, David Bayles tells us "The place to learn about execution is in your execution. The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love. Put simply: Your work is your guide." He later goes on to say "What you did got you here, and if you apply the same methods again, you will likely get the same result again." This is my best advice to setting your work apart. When you find what you love, practice that love over and over and over. While you're doing this, experiment with ways to achieve those results in different ways. Don't use the same formula every time. Eventually you'll figure out a method that is truly and uniquely yours.
To sum up:
- Work often, and experiment often.
- Find what you're best at.
- Make your best better. (this part takes time).
- Don't get caught up doing the same thing over and over.
To be passionate is to be pursuant. Passion is to be constantly chasing after something you will never catch. You have to drive yourself towards that unattainable goal, bettering yourself and your work every step of the way.
Be kind and work hard
These two sentiments cannot live independently from one another in our struggle to create. One of the things that makes you and your work unique is... You. I rarely get hired because my work is good. I get hired because my clients like me. I get rejected by other clients because they don't get along with me. My work is usually just a set of credentials that get my foot in the door. As much as I try to be unique, there are still other photographers that offer a similar style to my own. So it goes.
One of the things I get asked in almost every client meeting I have is: "What makes you different from other photographers?" or "What do you do that others might not do?"
I love this question. It's such a perfect opportunity to set myself apart and woo a client. I always make sure to tell my clients that I try to deliver results in unique ways. I don't follow a formula and I won't give them a cookie cutter photoshoot. Their shoot will be uniquely theirs, and their experience will be fun, lighthearted and new.
More than that though, I let them know that I want a relationship with them. I want to get to know them and become someone they can trust. If I'm shooting a music artist, I make sure to let them know that I've listened to their music before the shoot so I can understand what kind of vibe they're wanting to achieve. It's little things like that that set you apart from the thousands of other photographers that just show up to do their job. Relationship with your client is a key component to getting repeat work, and positive referrals.
Reject negativity and embrace your audience
Envy and bitterness will hold you back more than any other obstacle in your career. Holding onto contempt for your competitors and those who are further along than you are will not advance you towards your goal. Likewise, bringing them down by speaking poorly of them won't magically propel you forward ahead of them. Just last week a friend was showing me the portfolio of one of her photographer friends. I had never heard of the guy, and after seeing that he was working with some high profile clients, and that he was my age, I got defensive. I immediately started to discredit him and pick apart his work. I made a few comments about his lighting and composition and said something about how I couldn't believe that he was getting work. I stopped myself in the middle of my little tirade and realized I was doing the thing I hate the most. I was trying to belittle this person that I didn't even know, because I was jealous. I envied his position and wanted his clients.
Why did I do that? Why did I act like a child, and reject my own convictions to trample on a fellow artist? That particular week was an off week for me. I didn't have any gigs and was waiting for some emails to come in about upcoming shoots. I was restless and bored, and feeling a little guilty that I was taking so much time off from work. These are just excuses though. Even in our down seasons, we should be building each other up and projecting positivity.
You have to be willing to collaborate. Be willing to encourage. But above all, be willing to ask questions, and humbly admit that you still have a lot to learn. If you step outside of the pack of negativity most of us live in, people will notice. People will want to know what makes you so different. They'll want to know how you're rising above the monotony of our industry. They'll want to know why you're so damn... Nice.
While you're doing all of this, keep close tabs on your audience, no matter how large or how small. Try to figure out and understand what they like about you and your work. Ask them questions and get to know them. Let them see you as a person, and not just a portfolio or an Instagram feed. Reply to their comments, answer the questions you're asked and do things for your followers. People don't want to follow a false idol. They want to follow a leader. They want to rally behind someone who understands them and has their best interests at heart.
I am in no way an expert on gaining a following. My own following is actually very small. But the following I do have is exceptionally loyal. So keep in mind as you read, I am not promising to show you how to gain thousands of followers in a few weeks. I'm sharing with you how to develop good relationships with your followers. After all, having 60,000 followers on Instagram or Twitter doesn't mean much if they don't care about you or what you do.
When I say interact with your following, here is what I mean:
- Always reply to comments, tweets and emails, and be genuine and sincere with your responses
- Seek out new followers. Don't wait for them to come to you. Look at your "suggested friends" lists, "near you" lists, etc. Like some of those people's posts, comment on them, and so on. But don't do this in a cheap way to gain a follow-back. Like I said before, take an interest in these people.
- Provide your followers with new and interesting content, while keeping an eye on what they like to see the most.
- Give back to your followers. Doing give-aways is a great way to gain some steam. If you're a photographer, post a "how-to" video or some insight on your workflow.
- Don't be a dick. That one is self explanatory.
Remember what I said earlier about how it's never been more accessible to be an artist? Well, that's true, but while it is accessible, it is now equally more difficult. No one cares much about you or your work when you first start out. You will constantly face adversity and live in a world of self doubt and contradiction. You may not be working for a large audience at first, and you may not feel your work is very rewarding at the outset.
But that is where your heart and mind have to change. You cannot work for the praise, you cannot work for the money. You have to work for the work. You have to find yourself overcome by joy when you are creating. The accolades, the money and the crowds are merely a byproduct of your love for your work.
I'll leave you with one more quote from Art and Fear:
"Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself."
Resources discussed in this post
Art and Fear, softcover:
Jeff Goins' free E-book: