Over the past couple of years, as I have gotten deeper into my hobby/side-gig of photography, I have realized many things about the mentality of photography. The things that I've learned have helped me mature as a photographer and helped me see new potential. By sharing what I've learned, I hope to give other photographers, who are still trying to figure out this whole photography thing, a boost.
What I have to share is a short list of rights that you can enjoy as a photographer. This isn't going to be a list of things you can legally do like photograph people on the street without their permission or stuff like that. There are lots of articles out there about the legal rights you have with a camera. Instead, I'll be talking about the rights you enjoy that stem from your position as a creative person. Most of these things, once realized, have helped me grow in my creativity and satisfaction with my work.
You have a right to take pictures whenever you want
Believe it or not, but you don't need anyone's permission to go out and take pictures. When I was first using my camera, I felt that I had to wait for someone to tell me to go out and use it. I needed my wife, or my friends, or my bank account to say, “Hey Kirk, it's gonna be a great weekend. Why don't you go out and take some pictures?” There was this…fear…that was holding me back. Something inside me that kept saying, “Wow, did you see that photo that this guy took? Man that's awesome. Too bad you can't do that because [A], [B], and [D].”
- [A] The weather is bad
- [B] The season isn't right
- [C] I missed the snow/fall leaves/new blossoms
- [D] I have to travel 5 hours to get to a photogenic location
- [E] The Milky Way is below the horizon
- [F] No one has given you permission yet
Learning that all of these are just excuses that prevented me from getting the photos I wanted was a huge step in my career. I say career for lack of a better word, photography is not my job and I hardly get any significant money from it, but I do own my photography as a registered, tax paying business.
The last one, that I felt I needed someone's permission to go out and take photos, was probably the biggest impedance to my growth. I really, truly wanted to go out and take beautiful photos but I felt like I was always waiting for the universe to lay out this plan for me. Truth is, you don't need to wait for anyone. You can go out right now and take some pictures.
“Oh sure, boring pictures of my cat on the fence in my backyard,” I hear you saying. But really, all you need is a plan. What you have a right to do, and what I've done (and still do), is go scout a location. It doesn't matter what time of the year or what the current weather is like, you can always scout and take test shots. That way, when the season lines up with your planned shot, you go back to the exact spot you already planned out and snap away with a big cheesy grin on your face. I've waited up to 8 months for the perfect weather, season, and lighting for a photograph. Just recently, I planned out a photo of the Bountiful, Utah LDS Temple that took me over 20 hours of scouting (including visiting the location 3 times), composing, and weather tracking over the course of 4 months in order to realize the vision I had for it.
You do not need anyone's permission to go out and take pictures. All you need is a vision of what you want to photograph. Do you want a Milky Way shot over some sea stacks along the Pacific Coast? Great!
Step 1: When is the Milky Way going to be visible? This will set your timeline.
Step 2 : Find some sea stacks that look awesome (could take several months to find some good ones).
Step 3: Scout the location, take test shots, edit these shots on your computer to check for strong compositions.
Step 4: Watch the weather and plan your “production” excursion accordingly.
Go for a drive in the mountains this weekend. Go for a walk along the beach this weekend. Go for a walking tour of your city this weekend. Go visit a National Park this weekend. Take your camera with you and start making a plan. It's rare that you'll stumble across the perfect scene at the exact time you are there. Most of the beautiful photographs we see have hours, days, weeks, and months of planning behind them.
You have a right to print your work
The very first print I made and gave away as a gift was truly awful. It was a picture for my sister that I gave to her as a Christmas present. It was framed in a $10 frame I got from Hobby Lobby with a 50% off coupon. I made a print for myself because I was so proud of it. In fact, I was so proud of it, I was a little disappointed that the person at the print shop didn't tell me how amazing it was.
For years I felt that print was dead and that no one wanted printed work. I thought that work was only to be viewed on a phone or computer and that people didn't care about prints. This is wrong. Not only will printing make you a better photographer, but the great thing about producing prints is that you no longer require anything but light to enjoy it. And we get light for free every day of our lives. Printing your work brings it into reality. No longer do your photos exist only as 1s and 0s. You don't need a customer to want a print, you only need you to want a print. But let me tell you, people LOVE getting prints.
I print every final image I make. I print to check color balance, luminosity, and to find small errors in editing. But I mainly print because it is how I bring my photo to real life, no strings attached. Sometimes it is just a small print that I hang up at work, sometimes it is a 24×36 metal print to hang on my wall or to give to someone as a gift. Bottom line, printing is my right to do whenever I feel like it.
You have a right to say “No.”
As photographers, we often feel pigeon hole'd into using our camera for someone else's purpose. “Hey you've got a camera, right? Could you take ______ picture?” Whether that be at a family reunion, kids at the park, or someone's wedding, we are often asked to use our camera in a way that we aren't thrilled about.
Secondly, when it comes to producing our work, we are pressured to conform to other people's demands. “Hey I love this photo, you should put it on [insert social media website].” Or, “I love this photo, but could you print it on [insert size and medium] for me?” Last year I produced a composite image of the solar eclipse and gave a copy to my sister and my dad to take to work to hang up in their office. I wasn't expecting the feedback they got from people who loved it and wanted to buy a copy. My sister asked how much for a print for one of her coworkers. When I told her two different options, an aluminum print or a foamcore mounted paper print, and their prices, she said, “Do you have anything cheaper? I know this girl can't afford that but she really, really likes it.” Nope. This is how much I am charging for these specific prints.
Alternatively, my wife asked me to bring my camera along to a family outing to take photos of the kids. I told her no. That would mean a fun outing with my family would turn into work as I chased the kids with a camera, messed with settings, then had to export and edit the photos later. I know many photographers got their start photographing their own families, which is awesome (and I really mean that), but I'm not a people photographer and I have no interest in photographing my kids with my big, expensive camera. A cell phone will do just fine for what we are doing.
You have the right to tell people “No, but thank you for thinking of me” when they ask you to photograph whatever event or experience they have going on. Coming to this realization has helped me narrow down the photography field I want to focus on, and has created opportunities for more meaningful service when I do choose to use my camera in a way that isn't part of my methodology. My wife asked me a couple months before she was due with our third and final child to take a maternity photo of her. “I don't care if it's fancy, I just want a nice photo of me being pregnant,” she said. She never had a maternity shoot before and since this was our last kid, she wanted something special to remember it. Because I've said no so many times before, I felt this was a valuable opportunity to use my abilities in a way that would make my wife happy. I set up a shoot, took the photo, edited it, and printed it. She loved it. It's not the best maternity photo by a long shot, but it turned out well enough. Because I was comfortable turning down any photography opportunity, I was happy to say yes this time.
You have a right to get paid
This goes along with being able to say “No.” As a photographer, you have a right to make money from a skill you have that others don't. Even if this is your first time shooting a wedding, you have the right to charge something for it. In almost every other profession we pay people to learn while doing. We pay surgeons still learning, to perform surgery. We pay electricians still learning, to wire our house. We pay customer service agents still learning, to take our calls. Why should we not pay photographers, who are still learning, to take pictures? I've heard people, even photographers, say, “But you're (I am) still learning. So you (I) should this for free.” Ha! No way. You have a skill set they don't, that's why they are coming to you. Don't think that just because you don't have 10 years of experience, you should work for free.
A couple weeks ago, I was taking to Nathan, another writer on Improve Photography, at an art show where he was showcasing and selling his work. He told me he had a guy come in earlier and gave him a terrible low-ball offer for 2 prints. Now, Nathan does incredible work and he prints on aluminum which turns out absolutely fantastic. But this guy, hoping to get a deal, gave him an insulting offer. Nathan said “No thanks.” He respects himself enough to understand what he has is valuable and he doesn't need to jump on every offer that comes his way.
You have a right to suck
Thanks to the pervasive world of social media, where we only see the best parts of other people's lives, we feel like we have to be amazing on our first try at something. And if we aren't, we should give up immediately.
Photography is hard. It's a lot harder than people think it is, and it is A LOT harder than photographers thought it was going to be when they first got started. Because of this, you have the right to suck at photography for as long as you need to. There is no minimum or maximum time for sucking, there is only how much you are able to learn and grow. My photos sucked for years and I hated it. Back then, I looked at my work and thought I was the bomb dot com. But when I saw other people's work, I was deflated. I only realized that sucking is ok after I looked back at my sucky years and saw how much growth I had achieved. If you are going through your sucky phase right now, whether you've been shooting for 6 months or 6 years, it's OK to suck.
Some of the photos I take still suck. Only now do I realized that's ok because every time I suck, I know that I don't have to share it with the world hoping they'll see something amazing that I don't. You have a right to take some terrible photos. These ones are for you. These ones are to teach you different things that work and don't work. However, you don't need to share every single photo on social media. If you go back to point number one, your sucky photos could just be a “work in progress.”
That shot you took last weekend isn't amazing, but that's OK because you were just scouting the location. You'll go back again when the lighting is better or the trees are blossoming. Being sucky is just the swamp we all walk through in order to achieve success. It just sucks going through it. But you'll be alright, just keep going.
You have a right to produce your work to your taste
A couple weeks ago there was an interesting article about the ethics of photo manipulation that started a great conversation. When, and to what extent, is it ok to manipulate your images? I stand firm in my belief that unless you are a photojournalist, you have a right to present your artistic interpretation of the world around you. This could include sky replacements, editing, light modifying, and a number of other techniques so your images represent the scene in the way you want it to be remembered. In my photos, I do quite a bit of exposure brushing to add drama and impact. I'll clone stamp out people, cars, sticks, planes, rocks, or anything else that distracts from the overall scene I want for my viewers. I'll add warm and cool tones where acceptable in order to achieve the look and feel I'm trying to achieve. If you want to take a picture of the Washington Monument and blend in a Milky Way sky, go right ahead. If you want to remove an entire fence line from a photo you took of a meadow, be my guest.
I will also say that you have the right to keep your opinion to yourself, if no one asked for your input. Far too many times I see photographers attacking other photographers for their interpretation of a scene. If you choose to edit your photos in a certain way that is different from another photographer, that is your right. But that other photographer also has the right not be blindly criticized because you don't agree with an editing technique. If someone posts a photo online and asks for constructive criticism, go ahead and give them CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. “I don't like the way you did this because_____.” Or, “I would have done this differently because ______.” Never should just say, “You shouldn't edit your photo like this (because it's not how I would do it).”
Additionally, I want to stress that the physical destruction, permanent scaring, or harmful manipulation of nature is NOT OK. This means you don't cut down a tree or kick over a sapling if it is blocking your composition. You don't move a bird nest to make it a stronger focal element. You don't scratch your name into the sandstone of Delicate Arch. You don't destroy a bunch of flowers, a stream, or knock over a rock formation to prevent someone else from getting the same shot you did (or just as a joke or because you think it would be funny). If you want to put a few leaves on a rock to enhance your scene, go right ahead. You want to scratch your name into a popular photography location? Not cool. Leave your manipulation to Photoshop if it's going to cause irreparable damage.
Secondly, you have the right to print your work in whatever way you see fit. I used to offer canvas prints of all my images. But after selling several of them, I didn't like the way the image was presented on canvas. I didn't like the muted colors, the choppy texture, and the blocky feel. It made my photos look like something you'd get at IKEA for $49. So I stopped.
Afterwards, I had some people asking if I could print an image on canvas and I tell them no. I say that the colors are never as vibrant or alive on canvas, but in the end I just don't like the way my images look on it. And you know what, because I'm the artist, I get to choose how my prints are made. One of the bigger reasons also, is that a quality canvas print costs as much as a metal print, and this is a huge shock for most people. I got tired of people saying they can get a canvas print just as big at Michael's for “way less” than what I'm charging. “Then go to Michael's,” I'd think to myself.
You get to decide how your art looks. If you prefer the look of your photos printed on deep matte, 100% cotton paper with a velvet finish, then that should be the only option you offer. You don't need to conform with what someone else wants. You also don't need to be a snooty jerk about it, either, making them feel like an idiot because they don't know about your fancy pants, elite status paper.
“Hey can you print this photo on canvas for me?”
“Ha! I'd rather print it on my son's gym shorts than use crude and sloppy canvas. Noooo, I ONLY print on paper made from 100% Madagascar short-haired tree squirrel fir.”
That's not helpful.
Instead you can say that you've tested a number of different printing options and you like this (these) one(s) the best because it shows these unique qualities of your photography. You have a right to present your images in the way that best represents you. This also goes for printing rights for “people photographers.” Ben Hartley, with Six Figure Photography, stresses the importance of understanding the impact of printing rights. For his own wedding photography company, Style and Story Creative, he doesn't even give any printing rights to the client. He doesn't want his professional images printed at the kiosk at Kinkos. He is well within his rights to chose how his images are produced and how they represent him and all his hard work.
I personally would hate it if I sent someone a file of one of my images, cropped it, printed it on 8×10 matte paper from their All-In-One Canon printer at home, then framed it under a cheap plastic frame from the craft store. It's my right to determine how my work is represented. It's one of the reasons I don't offer 12×18 prints anymore. I don't like how small and underwhelming they are.
You have a right to be patient
Lastly, you have the right to not have to rush into everything right now. You have the right to wait to buy new gear. You have the right to wait for fall colors. You have the right to learn and grow over the next 3 years.
I want everything right now. I swear, when God was handing out patience, I wasn't in line. It kills me that I'm not the great photographer I want to be right now. It kills me that I don't have an amazing portfolio of beautiful images with people blowing up my inbox to buy them. But I have a right to be patient and take my time learning and growing. And so do you.
You can tell yourself, “Ok, this shot isn't great. But what have I learned? Ok, I'll apply that the next time I go here, which will be the week of Sept 23rd.” I recently went down to Lake Powell to try and get a Milky Way panorama. It was my first time trying to do something like that. I read lots of helpful articles on how to do it and planned everything the best I could. When I got there, clouds were coming in fast, the light wasn't great, and the photo didn't turn out. But instead of being mad that I didn't get the photo I wanted, I learned new things for the next time I go down there, which will probably be in a month or two so I can try again. I think the second time I'll really nail it.
Along with being patient, you have a right to hold onto your images until they are perfect before you show anyone (ie, post to Facebook, Instagram, etc). I made the mistake many times early on by being so excited about a photo that I would post it online before it was done cooking. I would get a tepid reception and wonder why no one liked my photography. After looking at the photos again (and looking at actual prints of them) I realized that my editing was only halfway done. Sure I've messed with exposure, contrast, and clarity sliders, moved the saturation a bit here and there, but it was still pretty blah. It was only after several unsuccessful “launches” that I realized I needed to do my edits then wait a day. Do more edits, then wait another day. Then do more edits. This way I can refine my post processing and come up with a really good image after a few hours of work, not just 45 minutes of moving sliders around. My editing time for a finished photo nowadays is a minimum of 3 hours.
There are so many aspects of being a photographer that you can learn that have nothing to do with camera settings or focal lengths. These concepts really helped to reduce my frustration and increase my satisfaction with my work. No longer am I expecting to get the most amazing landscape photo even though I show up at some random day of the year and the snow is barely melting, the trees are still bare, and there is mud everywhere. I am more patient, more engaged, and more focused on what I want to do and how to do it to achieve the results that make me happy.
Tell me what else you have learned in the comments below.