Naiveté can be both a blessing and curse, and for me, it was both. When I first started out in my photography career, I truly had no idea about the amount of work and dedication that would be required of me. In some ways I’m thankful I didn’t know, or else I might never have started.
The advice I needed to hear was: get some comfortable shoes and don’t be so hard on yourself. This career of yours, it’s not a sprint. It’s not even a race. It is a journey without an end.
Truthfully, I really just believed I would succeed. I also believed that I’d get there quickly. Which, looking back, was the single biggest mistake I’ve made in my entire career. In my naiveté, I set completely unrealistic expectations for myself and the timeline of how long it would take to reach my goals.
You see, it wasn’t until my 8th year in business that I felt I had truly hit my stride. Which means for the first 7 years of my photography career, I felt lost, struggling to define a style of my own, floundering from client to client. I was generally unhappy with the work I was producing because I felt I was capable of more. I was unable to make the images I envisioned come to life, and I missed out on jobs I thought I would have been perfect for. And as all of this stress grew and grew, I was faced with mountains of doubt about my ability and my desire to continue.
Some of you may be thinking… “Well, you survived 7 years of business, you must have been doing something right”. And clearly I was doing enough to survive. But surviving and thriving are two totally different things. I was stubborn, but not well fed. And I was fortunate that I had an extremely supportive wife with a stable income.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’m what you would call a late bloomer. Because, after 7 years of photography, I knew more about what I didn’t want to shoot than what I did want to shoot. It was only by pouring over my entire body of work that I was eventually able to see the outline of a style, and areas where I seemed to excel (as well as those areas I was really struggled with). For some people, this realization comes much sooner than it did for me. Which makes it seem like I wasn’t just a late bloomer, I was a slow learner. And that is exactly my point the rate of success for your photography career will not be determined by anyone but you. The speed at which you develop your skill has nothing to do with the speed at which other photographers develop. Fast learner, late bloomer, it doesn’t matter which one of these is you. Understand your strengths and weaknesses, know yourself, and focus on looking in the mirror rather than online.
Comparing ourselves with everyone else, and everyone else’s work, is only beneficial if we are able to find inspiration and desire to improve from it. The moment we start feeling bad about our work, or bad about ourselves, is the moment we need to tune out all the external distractions and focus back on our own individual path.
Having walked my own photography path for 15 years now, I see how badly I could have used some advice - advice I’d actually listen to. So this is what I’d say if I could go back in time and talk to a young, naive, slow learning version of me…
Be patient with yourself. Accept that you will make mistakes, learn from them, forgive yourself, and move on. Nobody is perfect. Stop being so hard on yourself.
Be diligent with your learning. Photography is a journey, and you will only improve by continually working at your craft. Remember the 10,000 hour rule?
Be mindful of your prices and your expenses, but especially your cash flow, and of over extending yourself unnecessarily. Having lots of gear is nice. But we all start out with small kits. Learn to use the gear you have; the real magic happens four inches behind the camera.
Remember to turn off your computer. Life is short, you will spend far too much time staring at your screen. Get out of your chair and explore the world.
But most importantly, if I have learned anything during my time with my camera, it is this: photography is not a sprint. It’s not even a race. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Some people will rush ahead, others will set out more cautiously. Some will glow brightly, others take some time to smolder before catching fire. There is no right or wrong path. There is only your path. And you are the only one who can walk it.
Kelly accidentally became a photographer when he dropped out of accounting school. Determined to be a contributing member of society, he worked hard at his craft for years and eventually discovered his enjoyment of being around happy people on their happiest days. When not writing about himself in the third person, Kelly can be found making terrible dad jokes to his wife and three kids. Usually he is the one laughing the loudest.