Photography is a complex thing that takes a combination of technical skill, creative vision, and (if you are a professional) business savvy to find success, making it easy to fall prey to traps that can derail you along the way. Here are five subtle mistakes photographers make that can negatively affect their experience, images, or careers.
Emotional Connection With Images
Photography can be a deeply personal pursuit for many of us, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it can give us the passion and drive to continually push ourselves to become better at our craft. After all, we should all be enjoying the image-making process. Otherwise, why are we doing this in the first place?
This can be a double-edged sword, however. This becomes a problem when we let emotion override our ability to objectively evaluate the quality of our images. For example, say there is a park near where you grew up, one in which you created countless memories. It might not be remarkable or significantly different from thousands of other similar parks, but to you, it is special.
Now, say you capture a nice sunrise there one day. To you, that picture might be really special, something that evokes feelings and memories of an important place. But to other viewers who don’t share those experiences, it is just a landscape image. And because of that, if you want to share it with the wider world or sell it, it needs to stand on its own, which means you need to be acutely aware of your own bias when evaluating it.
I was guilty of this for a long time. I let photos of people I loved or of places that held memories override my ability to be objective about the quality of the images, and that was detrimental both to my professional standing and my growth as a creative. I finally solved it by implementing a simple rule: if I had to explain an image to justify it, it wasn’t worth showing outside my private collection.
Working for Unsustainably Low Pay
This is one that a lot of newer photographers fall for. To be clear, this is not to say that you should try to accept nothing but top-level prices when you haven’t worked your way to that tier. Rather, this is aimed at photographers who price themselves at levels that simply are not sustainable.
People do this in the hopes that they will build a client base that will remain loyal to them when they then raise their prices to more reasonable levels. The problem with this is that a client you get by offering basement-level prices is not one that is likely to be loyal to you. Rather, these are likely customers who simply shop for the lowest price, and when you no longer offer that, they will move on to whoever does.
Instead, you should aim to start at prices that are commensurate with your skills and experience (which is why you should wait until you have built good skills to start charging) but sustainable, then raise them as your skills, portfolio, and experience grow. It’s better to have five loyal clients than 50 who are only with you because you’re the cheapest on the block. It is way less work too.
The old classic. It still bears saying, though. This is not to say gear doesn’t matter. That’s a vast oversimplification. The truth is that gear does matter. Better gear can produce better image quality, make editing easier, and can even enable you to get shots that would not be possible otherwise.
However, we tend to make two mistakes regarding this. First, we overestimate how often we truly need new gear to have the capability to get a certain image. More often than not, what we really need is to work on our technique. Be brutally honest with yourself. Have you really maxed out the abilities of your camera, or would a bit of practice solve the issue?
The second mistake we often make is overestimating how much the improvement in image quality will matter. Generally, more expensive cameras and lenses will produce better images; no one is arguing that. The question is: how much does it matter? If you generally just post on Instagram or the web, you don’t need mountainous amounts of megapixels or clinically sharp lenses. Better image quality is always nice, and more resolution to play with can be helpful, but think carefully about where your images ultimately end up and if they’ll actually benefit from extra resolution, a larger sensor, etc. Ask yourself if your post-processing style really demands more dynamic range.
Shooting for the Approval of Others
Social media has been a real driver of this phenomenon. Instead of exploring their interests and developing a unique creative voice, photographers chase trends and popularity. Find any popular hashtag or location on Instagram to see what I mean. Or, check out Insta Repeat.
If you are a hobbyist, the only person you need to answer to is yourself. And you will find photography a lot more satisfying if you are shooting and editing the way you like instead of chasing likes and follower counts. There is nothing wrong with emulation as a learning tool, but make sure that doesn’t turn into a substitution for developing a creative voice.
If you are a professional, guess what? You still don’t answer to random people on social media, only your clients and yourself. And while it can benefit you to stay up to date on prevailing trends in case a client asks for them, at the end of the day, they hire you because they are attracted to your unique creative voice, which is why so many professionals preach about the importance of personal projects.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst,” or so said Henri Cartier-Bresson. It takes a long time to take 10,000 photos. It takes a long time to become a proficient photographer, and that can be discouraging. This is when people get tempted by shortcuts. There’s a reason so many popular photographers sell presets.
The problem is that shortcuts like purchased presets rarely produce the results you are after, and worse, they don’t teach you how to look at an image and know how to get it to where you want it, which makes you dependent on other people’s tools instead of your own skills.
That is not to say there are no legitimate shortcuts out there, however. For example, editing actions can make you more efficient by automating tedious repeated tasks. But before you consider any sort of shortcut, you should ask yourself two things: “would I think to do what this shortcut does without it, and could I do it manually?” Only if you can answer “yes” to both should you then use the shortcut.
These were five common mistakes that I have seen in others and that I have been guilty of plenty of times. Have you noticed any others?