So you’ve decided you want to be a professional photographer, and you’ve proven you have what it takes. You’ve settled on a specialty, bought your equipment, created your portfolio, set up a business, followed through on your marketing and pricing strategies, and won a few clients along the way.
Congratulations! Your real work has only begun.
Running a business doesn’t get easier. Your ongoing success rests on your ability to continually improve as a photographer. I’m not just referring to the obvious factors, such as the quality of your images and your aptitude with the latest gear, but everything to do with customer service, efficiency, communication, and sense of purpose.
As you refine your artistic eye, you should improve your ability to meet and exceed your clients’ expectations. As you hone your marketing message, you should improve your ability to live your values in every aspect of your business.
Improvement starts with the desire to improve. In order to grow, you need to want to grow. This isn’t the same as being unfairly hard on yourself. Always remember that you have merit as a photographer, and that an overactive inner critic can actually paralyze you and inhibit your improvement. You’ll have to balance a desire to progress with an appreciation of your current abilities.
But in the same sense that you can’t do much to change your taste, you either have the motivation to get better or you don’t. If think you can allow yourself to become complacent, consider all the practical reasons you need to emphasize improvement as a photographer:
– Everyone thinks they can do what you do. As technology gives non-specialists greater and greater access to photography tools, you need to prove that you have more value than a smartphone camera, and that your services are worth paying for.
– You have competition. If you don’t keep improving, you’re liable to fall behind the other professionals in your field. Someone else will eventually take better photographs in your area of expertise, and generate those images faster and at a lower rate.
– Stagnation is death. Stop changing and growing as a photographer, and your business will stop being relevant. Keep in mind that everything that looks dated now was once on the cutting edge. It’s up to you to remain connected to the present moment.
– It’s a fun challenge. Continual improvement keeps you engaged in your business and your passion. Your sense of confidence and enthusiasm for what you do shows. Work hard and you’ll almost always take pride in your work as a result.
Here are five ways to put your commitment to continual improvement into practice:
1. Keep Track of Your Friends and Colleagues
Your business doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Throughout your neighborhood, state, country, industry, and discipline are fellow photographers and other creative professionals doing their best to make a living doing what they love. Get to know them. Talk to them. Keep track of them. Comparing yourself to others is a trap, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook your friends and colleagues completely. Rather than sources of self-doubt, think of them as possible collaborators, mentors, and protégés. They’ll expose you to new ways of working, and grow through your influence in return.
2. Don’t Keep Your Questions to Yourself
Wondering how she accomplished that shot? Have no idea where he got that lens? Ask! Ask as many questions as possible. From business administration to bounce lighting, there’s an infinite number of topics to learn and practice as a photographer, and you won’t learn many of them on your own if you’re afraid to admit what you don’t know. Most freelancers are more than willing to share their methodologies, but you’ll have to build trust first—by opening up about your unique process, strengths, and challenges.
3. Ask for Feedback
Reach out to your current and former clients and ask them what they find or found valuable about working with you, as well as what they think you could have done better. Gathering feedback can be a scary, awkward process—and it might even hurt your feelings a little—but if you develop a thick skin and face your weaknesses head-on, you’ll improve exponentially faster.
4. Try New Things on a Regular Basis
As with all forms of art, expression, and communication, photography encompasses a universe of styles, techniques, and viewpoints. Challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone every now and then. If, for example, you do events like weddings and concerts, try your hand at scenic photography. Or, if you specialize in portraiture, try shooting a moving subject. You may not love your initial results, but you’re almost guaranteed to learn a mode of composition or a feature of your camera that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. This exercise can spark ideas and illuminate new possibilities. The point isn’t necessarily to broaden your professional services, but to deepen your understanding of the kind of photography you already do well.
5. Change Your Perspective
One of the most efficient routes toward providing better work for clients is to gain insight into their point of view. Place yourself in their position and you’ll immediately grasp their concerns and priorities. Hire a designer, writer, videographer, or—better yet—another photographer for a small project, and pay close attention to the way you conduct yourself on the other side of the equation. Chances are that you’ll see yourself thinking or even saying some of the same comments you’ve encountered and that have caused you frustration as a service provider. It may be harder to be a “good client” than you thought.
Finally—and if you take only one lesson away from our series for beginning photographers, it’s this: don’t be afraid to fail.
In fact, let go of the concept of “failure” entirely. There’s no such thing. There’s only experience, and the more you can learn from it, the better you’ll ultimately become.
If you screw up thoroughly and completely, you gain the benefit of an exhaustive plan for what not to do next time. Catastrophes are a public service; they not only teach you what to do better, but they help others avoid similar fates. Incredible mistakes make for incredible stories.
It’s an old cliché, but too few photographers truly embrace it: you’ll never learn anything if you don’t try. Live fearlessly, take risks, and you’ll be rewarded in kind.
It starts today. Moments matter. And every moment is an opportunity to capture a fleeting smile, a once-in-a-lifetime play, a mysterious natural phenomenon, a tender human connection, an unforgettable memory. It’s all happening—out there, right now. Blink and you’ll miss it.