We're excited to continue our "What I Wish I Knew" series and feature some our amazing contributors. This series chronicles the mistakes and revelations creatives made during their first years in business. Today Ryan Longnecker shares his lessons learned in his own practice.
Our brains are crazy, seriously. Our brain spends 30% of its time daydreaming to prevent us from taking in information that is not useful to survival. It does this because it reserves the calories it takes to think for more essential things. Our brain has a protein which it’s only function is to help us forget things we’ve experienced in our day so we don’t go over our mental capacity and go crazy. It would seem that we are hardwired to manage our situations based on their profitability or unprofitability, right?
Early in my career I spent a lot of energy trying to figure out who or what to hustle when I should have been spending that energy thinking about how, when, and where to hustle. The former is hoping to grab on to someone famous, or something popular, the latter is late nights of research, intentional social strategies, watching tutorials, making a pour over coffee at midnight to practice a new editing technique, opening yourself up to critique from fellow professionals and nonprofessionals.
I think the older I get the better my ability is to be able to sniff out intentions early on in conversation, and knowing that now would have prevented a lot of unnecessary frustrating situations. Knowing that earlier would have helped me enjoy the process rather than biting my nails trying to find the shortcuts. I wish I would have known that anyone trying to sell me the 5 step equation for success is trying to get something out of me, or at least being less than genuine about how photography (…and life) really works.
The advice I’ve received in my career that has stood the test of time has always at face value seemed a bit abstract or dismissive, but in practice was the most truthful and helpful because it was shaping how I think, not just what I do.
The truth is that everyone’s target for success is a convoluted venn diagram that for some involve, family, travel, money, relaxation, play, risk, security, toys, entertainment, socializing, fame, notoriety, longevity, impact, connection, vulnerability, honesty, and the list could stretch the full length of this article. The real complication comes in when we realize that each of those circles adjusts as we mature as artists and as people.
So if you are spending that brain energy of yours analyzing every situation to fit it into 2 boxes, profitable or unprofitable, you’re probably missing the opportunity to be present at that moment. And it’s worth mentioning that if what we consider as success or profit is being matured, then pursuing those things is a great goal. The kind of “profit analysis” that is dangerous that I’m referring to often can be seen as “what can I get?”, or “what can I take?”
There are a few things anyone can do, no matter where you are at in your field.
Tip #1 Teach and give freely, learn deeply, and give credit to those who inspire you
Share knowledge you have with people who ask, and readily point people to those who do great work. If a fellow artist inspires you, tell them and then publicly tell others. Be the kind of person that hands out referrals before your network shares their referrals with you. Try to figure things not just what to do, say, or which buttons to push, but how things work. An example is in a job interview if you can get the interviewer talking about themselves and engage them in story you are going to be much more memorable and hirable in their eyes because most people love stories and talking about themselves. That’s thinking about how people work, rather than what words to say.
Tip #2 Refine your definition of success into one that values people over power
Strive for real connections within your field, not just beneficial ones. Shoot the breeze over just talking shop. You will succeed in life if you can learn what profits your life as a whole. What people build you up, are enjoyable, refreshing, encouraging, honest? Invest time in those people, not just photography rock stars.
If you notice your desire to get the shot is ruining a beautiful moment, put the camera down. That might mean you need to practice and learn how to be in a different spot, or anticipate the moment better, or know your clients emotional comfort beforehand. You’ll leave your clients with eagerness to promote and refer you because you understood the importance of moments rather than just hiding behind your camera or ruining a moment with it. Realize that making people feel comfortable while holding your camera is one battle that everyone has to navigate. Some of the best photographs, yes, are of some of the most vulnerable moments. The question you SHOULD be asking is “how did that photographer make them comfortable enough to be a part of that moment?” The mind-blowing images we see are ones where the photographer was invited in that close. That’s what separates us from paparazzi.
Tip #3 Invest deeply in your present
Look for the quieter beautiful details of a person, or a story, or a shot. Listen for the story being presented to you rather than telling the story you want (thanks Jonas Peterson for that by the way). Practice being a person that is easy to be around and not one constantly trying to move the conversation along. The relationships you have, both personally and professionally, will suffer if you are constantly trying to grab the next rung of the ladder irrespective of your friendship with them. Hustle hard when it’s time, and when you are home in front of your computer, and when you are designing social strategies, but don’t use people as tools. Hustle your time, not theirs.
All of the practical and technical tips I could give you are honestly things that now you can master with a week's worth of Googling and Youtube tutorials. Not that editing, or gear, or websites, or SEO, or Instagram strategies, or whatever isn’t important, but that’s something you can hustle to learn fairly easily, and I’ll leave those to you. Just remember in that too, don’t just use the preset, learn how it does what it does. Press every button on your gear or software and pay attention to what it does, that’s the whole “learning how things work” thing I mentioned earlier.
I swear if you do this you will put yourself in the best possible position to succeed way more than trying to ride coat tails or trying to master the editing style of the week. You will become easier to be around, and in the late hours of the night you can master your craft and come up with the unique value and vision you have to offer, and once you can be someone people want to be around and offer value to them, you’re good. From there on it’s just wash rinse repeat that same process of refinement and intentionality and avoiding the temptation to do whatever it takes to go viral.
Hi, my name is Ryan and I'm a professional brand ambassador and travel photographer living in Los Alamitos, CA but I grew up in a tiny town in the mountains of California. It was there that the love of beauty was nourished by an amazing set of patient and loving parents and the mountains in my backyard. I have 2 degrees and neither of them having anything to do with photography. I have 2 beautiful and playful daughters and an eternally-patient wife that encourage more beauty in the world every day. I'm convinced if you train your eye to see beauty, you'll be surprised with how much of it is quietly surrounding you.
To view more of Ryan's work, you can visit him here.
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You’ve read all the books. You’ve surfed the whole ‘net. But you are still having a hard time convincing clients to spend their hard-earned dollars. They keep opting for your less expensive products, smaller sizes, or “just a few prints.” You’re about to throw your hands up in the air and say, “I give up!”