Words of wisdom

Back in 2004 I was pretty prolific. I was writing technique and opinion pieces on my website at least once a month, if not more. Times have changed, I’ve become less prolific and I have a lot less spare time on my hands too. Going back through some of the gems (and some of the cringe-making stuff) I am re-posting (and re-re-posting others) because they still represent what I think. As I say, from 2004…

It has happened again. I have had a letter from a student of photography asking me a really simple question, and I have spent so much time over-complicating the reply that it has ended up here on my web site.

“…so” said the innocuous e-mailed question “what is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you about either being a professional or about photography in general”.

Innocent question? No! I have spent ages formulating my reply, and I’m still not sure that I’ve cracked it…but, for what it’s worth, here is my reply. The answer is in the last sentence.

 There is a stage in your career where you learn so fast that your head spins at 6,400 rpm at the end of every day. Slowly your learning rate goes down, but the quality of the newly found knowledge probably goes up. Similarly, when you are a real “newbie” there seems to be a queue forming right around the block to deposit sage truths right into your knowledge bank. (I am mixing my metaphors here, but I think it make sense anyway). Once you have been around a while it takes more courage on the part of the “old hand” to dish out the advice until one day you find yourself imparting more gems of truth than you will ever receive again. Sadly I’ve been at that latter stage for so long now that I really should get myself a Gandalf beard, but I do remember a time when I did qualify for the advice soup kitchen.

In chronological order here a few of the more choice bits of advice that I received before my career got going and I hope that you are either informed or amused by them.

  • There’s no money in photography – school careers counselor 1980
  • Never shoot wider than f8 – manager of the camera shop where I was working 1983
  • There’ll always be a market for pictures of nude women – sleazy shop customer 1983
  • My career will be over long before newspapers shoot colour – local newspaper photographer 1983 (still working)
  • Nobody will offer you a place at college with a folio like this – admissions tutor 1984

Early advice and comment fell way wide of the mark. There was plenty more to be had, but it was all as bad. Once I had been accepted onto a college photography course, the quality of the advice picked up and the staff lecturers were full of wisdom, the best example of which I still remember…”Don’t listen to anything I say, but hang on every word of the visiting professionals we bring in to talk to you”. My peers and I did listen to the wise words that came our way, and we quickly worked out which were worth obeying, which needed to be stored for later and which could be safely forgotten. Some of our visiting tutors gave great practical tips…

  • Keep every receipt. Claim everything against tax and make sure you get paid.
  • The business is full of sharks. You have been warned.
  • Get a great portfolio, keep it up to date and never let it gather dust.
  • It’s good to know how to make beautiful prints, but only so you can tell your printer where he’s going wrong.
  • A distinctive style is good, just as long as it doesn’t go out of fashion.
  • Spend as much time looking at other people’s work as you do fretting about your own.
  • Only buy enough equipment to do the bread and butter jobs. Renting makes sense.

I’ve lost count of the photographers who told me which developer to process my Tri-x in, or which pro lab did the best job on transparency film. Valuable though these things can be, they aren’t going to get you noticed. The people whose advice did the most were those who took the time to look through my folio and be constructive, those who would show you their work and talk candidly about it and those who would have a drink with you and tell anecdotes. Stories give context to advice, real life situations add relevance. Photographers who can tell you which picture editor likes what and who can advise you who to talk to are saints, but some of the best advice came from my peers. People at roughly the same stage in their careers as me were always worth listening to and my respect for the whole concept of “peer learning” is huge.

These days it seems that we are constantly forging new paths and breaking new ground. The whole digital experience has taught me that there is somebody somewhere who has just worked through the problem that you are currently experiencing. Sure, you need to work out who is a reliable source and who is full of BS but the information is out there.

Now for the one piece of advice, well the best three. In reverse order they are.

  • Whilst it might seem a privilege to make your living in such a wonderful job, you still have to pay the bills.
  • Its not good enough to take good photographs most of the time, you have to take great ones all of the time to survive
  • Never take advice on photography from someone who tells you that there is only one way to do something!!!


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