As a professional photographer, you never stop learning about photography. There’s the constantly changing equipment to come to terms with, new techniques to master, shooting conditions to learn from, improvements you can make to your business and better ways to bring value to the service you offer your clients. Ultimately, though your goal as a photographer should be to continue producing better images.
Here’s a quick summary of six important lessons I learned in the year just passed which, hopefully, have contributed to making me a better photographer.
FIVE HOURS A MONTH TO STUDY: I set aside five hours a month to study new techniques and styles in photography. Particularly with the advent of all things digital, there is so much still to learn and, as a travel photographer who wants to be the best at what he does, I’ve set up a system to keep on top of it. (Yep, I too wonder where I get the time). Knowledge is power (and income), so I discipline myself to spend five hours a month studying photography and new techniques that are likely to improve my work. I have an alert that pops up on I-cal, asking me if I have done my five hours at the end of the month and, if I haven’t, its my priority that weekend. I have a file for photographs I collect in my travels – “that’s a nice style/technique, I’d like to add that to my repertoire” which I refer to regularly. I also read photography magazines voraciously – Capture is my favourite – identifying at least one style, technique or piece of equipment that will make me a better photographer. Last year, much of my study time was spent in post production improving my understanding of Photoshop and Lightroom.
SIMPLICITY IS BEST; USE LESS: As a follow-on to the point I made above, I think its important to “use less” when it comes to post production. While I may well have all these new software techniques to draw from, I use them sparingly – principally to bring my raw files to reality. There are so many photographers out there throwing everything they have at their photography (high colour saturation, increased contrast, dodging and burning and creative layers etc), I think it actually takes away from the photograph rather than enhances it. So, while I think its important to have the option to draw from an array of post production techniques, I still prefer to concentrate on capturing a good image to start with.
IN BUSINESS, TRADE WHAT YOU HAVE – DONT GIVE IT AWAY: There are many photographers who undervalue their work by giving it away or discounting it just to win the business. I prefer, as an option, to trade a portion of my fee for something of equal value or to add some incentives I can afford to giveaway ( additional images or some extra time spent on planning etc). Apart from a special package I offer at the start of each year to secure forward bookings, my rate is fixed. I may well have lost business because of it (but then I figure I’m still in business for the same reason).
DONT GET COMPLACENT: I am commissioned largely because my clients want to see me do for them what I have done elsewhere and it would be comparatively easy to produce similar images. That said, if I do produce similar images, its generally my last resort – not my first – as I view every assignment as an opportunity to try something different and step outside my comfort zone. Of course the “bread and butter” shots need to be done but rarely will I go away without considering how I can shoot the destination or resort differently to how I’ve shot them before. I challenge myself, often using the images of other travel photographers I admire to motivate me. My goal is to be the best in my field – and I know I’m unlikely to get there by resting on my laurels and just doing what I’ve done before.
GET THE BEST EQUIPMENT YOU CAN: As a professional photographer, I’m always looking for opportunities to distance myself from my competition and, while my eye for photography and the experience I’ve accumulated counts for a lot, there is no getting past the use of superior equipment – particularly in the travel and tourism arena in which there is so much to compare. I have just upgraded to a medium format digital camera which produces 110 megabyte files (not the 30 meg files of a 35mm camera more commonly used by professionals). Given its AUD$14,000 price tag is more than many travel photographers are prepared to spend and that the images it produces are vastly superior in terms of quality, even before I press the button, I am in a better position than many of my competitors.
KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BIGGER PICTURE: I’m guessing that one day we all wake up and go “so, is this it?” as we look back on our professional life and wonder what it’s all amounted to. In my case, I’ll be disappointed if it just amounts to a collection of, well, pleasing but “forgettable” travel photographs and the knowledge that, while I had a camera in my hand for most of my career and visited all these exotic locations, that defining photograph or series of photographs simply escaped me. While my priority on assignment is to deliver to my client the best images I can, the most important lesson I take into 2012, is to never lose sight of my goal to rise above mediocrity in my profession and produce an outstanding portfolio of work that will define me as a photographer – something I can point to when I’m too old to lift a camera and proudly say, “Yes, this is it.”