Photography has been my hobby for the last 10 years, give or take a few months. In the last 2 years I started my own business and shoot professionally (part time) as a real estate photographer. I am nowhere near perfect and I've had some incredible set backs. Today we'll go over 13 mistakes I've made, some big and some small, that I feel have delayed my growth. A normal person learns from his mistakes, a wise person learns from someone else's mistakes. Takes these into thought as you discover yourself as a photographer. Don't make the same mistakes I did.
1. Buying gear I didn't need and/or going into debt for gear
I think most photographers feel the strong pull of Gear Acquisition Syndrome. So many shiny new things to buy! Photography gear reviews make us salivate with the promises of sharper images and higher dynamic range. The sad, and often rejected, truth is that new gear usually doesn't make us better. If we don't know how to use the gear we currently own, buying something new and better won't all the sudden make us amazing.
I have spent thousands of dollars on gear I didn't need or was even sure I'd use. This one time I bought a $1,200 3-axis gimbal (on credit!!) for video work before I was even sure I would use it. It was new and shiny and the guy who sold it to me assured me there was a line out the door to buy it. I used that thing once and it took me over 4 months to sell it at a $500 loss a year later. Never go into debt to buy gear. If you don't have the cash to buy it, save up first. This allows for some cool down time to think if you really need the thing or not. One of the best decisions I made was paying for my Nikon D750 with cash. I took me a couple months to save up for it and I bought one used off eBay (scary!) but it gave me the time to do my research and wait for a good deal.
2. Renting gear I didn't need
Right up there with buying gear I didn't need is a serious problem with renting gear I didn't need. When I go on trips I tend to think “I should get these lenses and see how I like them.” This is great if you have a profitable business bankrolling your gear experiments, but I didn't (still don't, really). There was a time I wanted to try my hand at multi-row gigapixel panoramas. So I rented a panoramic gimbal head and a 70-200mm lens. It was winter and we were planning a trip to Bryce Canyon. Well, the temperatures in Bryce in January range between Hoth and Narnia under the White Witch. Playing around with a gimbal head while breaking the snot icicles off my nose was no fun experience. I tried using it once and then never took it out again the entire trip. $130 wasted.
3. Buying cheap gear (SD cards, tripods, bags)
Buy nice or buy twice.
One thing I'm becoming disappointed about is that online retailers seem to be peddling more and more made in China knock offs these days. It is getting harder and harder to find quality gear made by reputable companies. Instead, I see a dozen options for $12 counterfeits. Buying cheap gear seems like a great idea at first and I've used all the excuses in the book: I only need it for this one thing, I won't use it all that often, I'm too poor to buy the real deal, etc.
I once bought a cheap SD card because I wanted to save $15 off the price of a name brand card. The plastic guides on that card (the little bridges between the gold contacts) broke off and made the card unreadable. I wanted to save $60 on a simple tripod for my speedlights so I bought a knock off brand instead of the recommendation from one of the professional (and highly successful) photographers I follow. This cheap tripod was so flimsy and wobbly it couldn't even stand upright under the weight of a speedlight. Knock off bags have ripped at the seams after only 2 months of light use.
4. Not seeing a sunset all the way to the end
On a trip to Bryce Canyon, I was set up for a great sunset shot at this incredible vista. As I was snapping away while the sun was going down I looked at the clouds in the west and decided that they were going to block out the sun and there wasn't going to be any great sunset event happening. I took a few more photos then started to pack up.
I heard my dad say, “Oh wow!!” Within just a few seconds, the sky turned from a still blue to a piercing red and orange. Crimson clouds slashed across the sky and I was busy putting my camera gear AWAY instead of taking photos.
You'll never know what the sky is going to do. I've heard of stories about rain for 3 days straight, a 15 minute break in the clouds, then rain for 3 more days. Don't assume you'll know what's going to happen. Clouds move so fast that if you aren't ready, you'll miss it.
5. Not scouting a location
This has a lot to do with the last mistake. On this trip to Zion I hadn't done any research or scouted any locations. I had just hoped that great photographs would happen because I'm a great photographer (/sarcasm). As I mentioned, it is either by luck or planning that a great image comes together. Very rarely does a great scene unfold in front of you with no planning whatsoever. A trip I took up to Montana yielded similar results.
I didn't have any idea of what I wanted to photograph, where the sun would be, or what the weather would be like. But Montana is beautiful so how hard can it be? Another trip with expensive rented gear that didn't see its full potential.
Some of the best images I've taken have had months, even years of planning and waiting. This image of my great-great-great-grandfather's grave stone was planned 6 months in advance. I knew exactly where the Milky Way would be, when the new moon was happening, and I knew exactly where the grave stone was (having visited the site while passing through on a different trip) and what direction it was facing. The only thing I couldn't control was the weather but I had a pretty good shot of clear skies because I planned this weekend getaway weeks in advance and tracked the weather. I printed this photo on aluminum and mounted it on a rustic barn wood backer and gave it to my mom for Christmas. She cried when she opened it.
6. Leaving my camera bag unattended
When I first started getting serious about photography I had purchased a brand new Sony alpha 700 and picked up some lenses and speedlights along the way. I worked at a bank at the time and they were having a photo contest where you could submit a photo to be featured on a debit card. I brought my camera bag in to take the photos from the SD card and left my bag there overnight. The next day it was gone, all $2000 worth of gear. I was devastated. We never recovered the camera and my renter's insurance only paid for depreciated value which was less than 40% of the purchase value (tip 6.5: always get replacement-value insurance plans). It was probably 2 years before I got another camera after that.
7. Deleting old RAW files
I've heard a hundred times on the Improve Photography podcast that you should never delete RAW files. Jim and others go into great detail about their backup systems and deep storage setups. I always thought to myself, “Eh, what's the point? I'll make my edits, hang onto the RAW for a few months then get rid of it cause I'll never go back and re-edit the photo again.”
Just this last week I learned about a new processing technique. When I pulled up LR to try it on an old real estate twilight photograph I was greeted by an error: File could not be found. I had deleted it several months ago thinking I would never need it again.
Hard drives are cheap. I have plenty of space on a 1.5TB disk drive and I wish I would have archived my old RAW files.
8. Overquoting a job
I got this call early on in my real estate career from a commercial land broker asking if wanted to shoot undeveloped commercial land for them. “We are looking for someone to establish a long term business relationship with for our photography needs all over the state,” she said. She told me about the job, what they would need, and asked me to send a few samples of things related to that. I was upfront with her and had never quoted on a job like that and didn't really have pictures of plain, empty land. She said to go out and take some pictures of anything because she needed to include some samples to send to her boss who would make the final decision.
I got some drone shots of some wetlands near my house, did some panoramas, and even included a short drone video just flying over the landscape. I sent my “portfolio” over with my price: $150/image plus 50 cents/mile plus $150 per diem. I thought, “This is a commercial broker, they are probably making bank on each of these sales. Might as well go high.” Turns out that was a bit too high.
I didn't hear back from her for a couple weeks and when I followed up she replied saying, “Your quote was way out of the range we were expecting. We've gone with a cheaper solution.” My quote was so high they didn't even want to negotiate. It probably came across as some guy inflating his regular prices to try and squeeze some money out of his clients.
I was really excited at the possibility of a job like this. The money would have been good even at a lower price point and it would have really helped to have that relationship with a commercial broker. Was my quote honestly too high? For someone like me, yes it was. I'm not a world renowned dirt photographer like Marc Adamus and should not have expected someone to pay such a high price for a few photos of empty land. In all honesty, I was trying that age old tactic of “give them a high quote and see if they take it.” What that got me was no counter offer and no job. I should have quoted more appropriately for my skills and reputation.
9. Shooting with my ego
In both real estate and landscape photography, some of my worst shoots are when I thought I was Mr. Hot Shot Photographer and could conquer the world. I mentioned my terrible trip to Zion National Park just a few paragraphs ago. In another article, I talked about my worst real estate shoot where I thought I could handle any situation but walked out of the house with my tail between my legs.
I've learned that letting my ego take control will completely ruin my ability to take a half decent photo. Every situation is different and needs to be respected as such. Some of my best photos have come from me thinking, “Oh man, I'm shooting from the hip. I sure hope this turns out.” And then it turns out amazing.
10. Planning trips specifically to get that epic shot
One of the worst photography trips I ever made was to get that amazing, award winning, cover of National Geographic, retirement plan shot. Amazing shots tend to happen on the extremes of the scale: pure luck or months of planning. One trip I took down to Zion National Park I wanted to get that amazing shot that would put me on the map. I didn't know how it would happen but I knew I could do it because I'm a super amazing landscape photographer. I rented expensive gear, I packed up the car, and I planned a 3 day trip by myself. Instead of having fun and shooting some photos, I stressed the entire time I was down there because I had yet to get that amazing shot. I ran from trail to trail, vista to vista, trying to nail that one unique view that would get me 1000 little thumbs on Facebook. It never happened. I was so disappointed in that trip that I didn't realize I had taken some pretty neat photos.
One thing I realized is that having a good time is more important than running around trying to get that one shot, especially if I don't know where that one shot is going come from. As a matter of fact, almost all of my really good images came during family trips to national and state parks. But I thought I could get an even better shot without the dead weight of a 2 year old asking for more fruit snacks.
11. Not shooting with a contract
When shooting professionally (when you are getting paid) it is so important to make sure everyone understands the expectations. The photographer takes amazing pictures. The client pays for amazing pictures. Everyone is happy. I really prefer to assume good intent and give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to working with a client. However, many, MANY times when you are getting paid to shoot you will run into people who want to change the scope of the agreement, often at the last minute and often without telling you.
One client said they wanted to purchase 4o images. I confirmed this with them when finalizing the shoot details, “So just to be clear, you intend on purchasing 40 images?” Yes, that's correct, they said.
I did the shoot, provided them with about 60 images to choose from and guess how many they chose? 22. When I asked why they didn't choose the 40 we had agreed upon, they simply said, “We decided that 40 photos would just be too many for this type of shoot.”
Because I didn't have a contract stating they would purchase 40 images, and because I didn't collect a shoot fee up front (another mistake made) they were able to change the scope of the shoot without telling me. I had no recourse but to accept almost 50% of my expected pay on that shoot.
12. Arguing with a client
Rule number 1 in selling: Always agree with the client.
This doesn't mean the client is always right, but you should always agree with them before transitioning to your point of view. For example:
Client: Your prices are too high / much higher than what I've seen other photographers charge.
You: I'm with you on that one, I completely agree that my prices are higher. The clients that I work with want a higher level of service and expect a higher quality product, which is what I offer. That's why I charge more, I 100% agree with you.
See? Always agree. In one instance, I had a client question my contract saying it was too long, too confusing, and rather unnecessary for a simple real estate shoot. Instead of agreeing with him, I immediately got defensive (the first reaction for most of us) saying the typical trope: the contract protects me and you, the contract states what I can/can't do, the contract is an important tool to run a professional business, bla bla bla.
He wasn't budging. He said, “I've hired dozens of photographers in my years as a real estate agent and I've never had to sign a contract before.”
I replied, “Well I don't know what kind of shady operation they were running, but I need to have this contract signed before I can work with you.”
He hung up right after saying, “Maybe calling you wasn't such a great idea.” I would have hung up on me, too. Fortunately, this was very early on in my real estate photography business (I hadn't even thought about starting Agynt Studio at this time). Arguing with a client will not win you any prizes and only serves to boost your own ego and prove that “you are right.” Arguing doesn't open doors or create relationships. It only leads to someone being right and someone else walking away.
13. Being Lazy
I think we have all experienced this one at some point in our lives. You want to wake up super early to make that 2 hour hike to the vista but your hotel bed is oh so cozy. The alarm goes off. You try to justify sleeping in by saying, “It will probably be a crappy sunrise anyway.”
I can't count how many times this has happened to me. On my last trip to Bryce Canyon, I told my wife I was going to take up before the sunrise and hike out to a point to get some photos. When my alarm went off I tried to say, “Oh it doesn't take that long to get out there, I probably still have another half hour of sleep before I really need to get up.” When I did actually get up, I missed the sunrise by about 20 minutes.
Several other examples include not packing camera gear thinking there won't be any amazing shots, only to curse myself for not taking a camera. Or staying home after a long day of work instead of heading out and then missing an incredible sunset.
I'm still working on the being lazy thing but I wish I hadn't let it take over so many times in my life. I have never once regretted going out on a photo adventure, even if the sky was boring or the lighting was bad or the one time I slipped off an icy log and fell into a river in December. But I have regretted staying home and missing some of the most amazing sunrises, sunsets, and other adventures.
So many people say, “Live life with no regrets” or “I'm glad I made mistakes because I learned the most from them.” That's great and all, but some mistakes don't make me a better person now, they only remind me of my own stubbornness and prevented me from getting a job or taking the most amazing photos of my life. While some mistakes and regrets are valuable, it is still easier to learn from someone else's mistakes than from your own.