The habits we need to build in the new year

For the last couple of years I’ve written a series of popular articles about what photographers need to stop doing in the new year. The title is a little tongue in cheek, but the message has always been deadly serious: start dropping bad habits that are holding you back so you can make progress toward your goals. 

But we’ve had a hard year, and I realized that telling photographers to stop doing something when they’ve been stopped by everything related to the pandemic would not only be unfair, but hurtful.

The message is still important, though. Our behaviors build our destinies, and our behaviors flow from what we believe. If we can change the way we think, we’ll change the way we act. And if we change the way we act, we can change our futures.

So here’s to saying good riddance to 2020, and hello to all the great habits we can start building that will make us better photographers, and hopefully happier people, in 2021. 

Model Tia Smith with hair by Jennifer Jensen and makeup by Serena Blackstone

Start making the most of the gear you already have

Gear is a big part of our job, but it’s not the most important part. We photographers have a tendency to think that the next body, the next lens, the next light, the next modifier is the only thing we need to take our work to the next level.

But it’s not.

Instead of upgrading your gear, try making the most of the gear you have, and upgrade your mind. Upgrade your creativity. Jaw-dropping images can be made with mediocre gear if we focus on our creative process. Chances are your current setup still has a lot of life left in it.

Learning to manipulate what you’ve got to the full extent of its abilities can be frustrating, but’s also an incredibly potent exercise in creativity.

Of course there are time a gear change is a must. But rather than thinking of an upgrade as the answer, start looking at it as a last resort. Can you think your way around the problem and find new and interesting ways to manipulate what you’ve already got to make what you want to make?

Model Charlee Johnson

Start competing with yourself instead of other photographers

We have all heard it said a million times, but other photographers aren’t your competition. Your job isn’t to do better work or sell cheaper portraits or hire more clients than them. 

Your job is to give your clients the absolute best experience and product you can. 

Don’t focus on other people’s businesses, focus on solving your client’s problems. The only photographer you should be competing with is yourself. Make a better product than you did yesterday. Offer better customer service, more understanding, and more comprehensive service than you did last week.

Other photographers are your compatriots who know your struggles and share your joys. Don’t look at them like the enemy, because they could be exactly the people who help you past your struggles.

Start making products

You need a product. 

Sharing great photographs online or on social media isn’t enough. They get a few likes and then disappear into the void. If you want to earn money from photography, your images have to have a purpose. It may be a book, a calendar, fine art prints, a photo essay, the possibilities are endless but the point is this: if you aren’t creating a finished product, you’re simply practicing.

Sometimes practicing is enough, but even practicing is meant to lead to creating a better product, a finished piece you do something with. You need as much practice finishing projects and going to market with a product as you do making things, but we’ve somehow gotten into the habit of making without shipping.

In order to prosper and succeed as a professional photographer, you need to make and deliver a product that lives beyond the next mouse click.

Model Jason Klein

Start networking

If there was a single piece of advice I wish had gotten earlier in my career, it would be about the importance of networking.

There is no way to make a sustainable career as a lone wolf. An industry is made up of individuals, and humans are social creatures. We make and leverage connections, we build relationships, and we like to work with people we like and admire.

No matter where your career is headed, you need to know people and–surprise, surprise–they need to know you! 

We aren’t just talking about other photographers, either. You never know what the result of a relationship–a real, honest, relationship of mutual benefit and respect–will be. It might be an introduction to the owner of a gallery you’ve been dying to show at.

It could mean referrals when other photographers are booked. It might mean meeting your next client, hooking up a friend with the model they’ve always wanted to work with, or collaborating on a project that gets you national recognition.

Go to the places people are, whether online or in person. Be valuable. Be helpful. Look to make meaningful connections and consider how you can be of service.

Build relationships that matter, and you’ll find yourself taking leaps and bounds forward in your career. Not only that, you may make friends that last a lifetime.

Model Caitlin Badinger with hair stylist and makeup artist Kimberly Davis

Start a “no complaining” policy

This might be the trickiest measure to employ, but it’s absolutely essential to a happy life and a solid career.

Complaining releases stress hormones, and the more you complain the more  your brain picks up the habit. Your neurons will actually begin to fire in those patterns, and soon complaining will become your default setting.

Complainers focus on what’s wrong. They live in stress. They don’t problem solve and they alienate themselves from the people around them. For someone making a career in a social profession, complaining is a dangerous habit.

Sure, complaining can be cathartic and feel good in the moment. Letting other people know of our frustrations can help us make connections and get assistance. But the habit of complaining is unhealthy. If we can learn to cultivate gratitude, to focus on problem solving and take responsibility for moving forward more often than we complain, nothing can hold us back.

Start looking beyond photography for inspiration

The photography community is so full of talent it’s hard not to get swallowed by it when we look for inspiration. But the danger becomes that we start reproducing what other photographers are making purely by our constant exposure to their work.

Instead of making your mood board, references, or inspiration boards solely focused on photography, start looking in other areas. Painting, cinema, theatre, concept art, music, sculpture, poetry, fiction, any other art form can become a fruitful source of inspiration much more likely to lead to unique works, especially when they’re combined.

Take the time to consume more information, and you’ll have more to draw from when it’s time to create.

Models Chase Watkins, Janelle Ames, and Matt Block.
Hair stylist Nichole Renee and Makeup artist Kimberly Davis

Start outsourcing

Outsourcing may be the single most helpful step photographers can take to increase their productivity. Most photographers are one-person teams, handling every aspect of image creation, editing, marketing, bookkeeping, and a hundred other tasks. We can end up worn down, wore out, and disillusioned with our chosen profession.

In many ways, I would argue that you can’t afford NOT to outsource. It may be as simple as sending off bulk edits to a retoucher, having someone  schedule your meetings, or having a friend admin your facebook page. 

No matter where you’re at in the photography journey, chances are there is some aspect of your job that causes you stress or makes you crazy. If you can find a way out outsource that task, you’ll give yourself more time, make yourself happier, and open the door for earning more money in the long run.

Start recognizing your worth

Dr. Seuss said it best, “There is no one alive who is youer than you.” 

There are better photographers than you.

There are better marketers than you.

Better customer service people, better networkers, better, better, better. 

But there is no human alive like you. Your job isn’t to be the best anything, because that’s a job you’ll never succeed at. Your job is to be you. No one can compete with you, there. No one else sees like you see, thinks like you think, connects to people the way you connect.

If you can embrace this, if WE can embrace this, I think we will find ourselves wallowing in incredible freedom. You don’t have to be better than anyone else. You just have to be authentically, unapologetically you. 

Then your art will be clearly your own. If there’s any good work we can do, this is it.

Model and actor Justin Jackrabbit

Start treating your customers like gold

Most photographers see themselves as artists, and rightfully so. But that means we often focus on our art, rather than our clients. Even if your clients are buying prints and not portraits, you’re providing goods and services, and this means your ultimate job is customer service. 

If you run a photography business, your clients are the people who pay your bills, which means your business exists to solve their problems and make them feel like they’re the only priority in the universe. They could buy goods and services from almost anywhere, so it behooves you to make their experience with you the best in the industry.

Care about them more, give them more of your attention, try to understand them better, and remember that they are the only reason you are in business. If you want to make art for yourself, you don’t have to worry about clients. But if your goal is to sell anything at all, happy customers had better be at the heart of it.

Model and actor Scott Ables

Start learning the why

The Why is something I consider master level. Why? Because anyone can reproduce a series of tasks. Put this light here. Turn this knob. Push this button. Get this result. But the real question, the thing that actually matters, is why?

Why did you choose soft and not hard light?

Why that color?

Why those settings?

Why that angle?

Every artist must answer the question why over and over with everything they create. It’s the hardest question to answer, and the most important. At it’s heart lies your motivation to create, to communicate. It dictates every decision you make. This is where craftsmanship ends and art begins. 

If you want to move beyond derivative works, focus on the why behind the how.