Alright 2016, let’s chat for a sec…
Last year I wrote about my 10 Best New Year’s Resolutions for Photographers and I’m happy to say I followed most of them. I even printed my photos, which means there are photos of my husband and new daughter in my house right now as I write this. Fellow photographers I know you know what a big deal this is, so just allow me a moment to bask in the glory of all your collective high fives.
*basking…basking…basking…a few more…is that everyone?*
Ah yes, thank you. That felt good.
But as great as a hypothetical high five feels, it isn’t going to pay the bills. The reality is, no matter how amazing your photos are, if your business is struggling you’re back to the grind of the real world. Back to bartending, back to living with your parents, back to justifying your “hobby” as a legitimate career choice.
And then finally, back to nursing school.
And that’s no way to ring in the New Year. Unless your end goal really is to be a nurse…or a bartender.
Hence, instead of making another photography resolution list, I thought it wiser to make a photography business resolution list. Let’s make this the year you aren’t staying business by just the skin of your teeth. Let’s make this the year your career choice actually turns into a career.
So here they are. My Top 10 Photography Business Resolutions:
1.) Plan for Growth
Growth doesn’t just magically happen. If you want something more than what you currently have, you’ve got to hustle for it, and you’ve got to plan for it.
Gather your goals for the year and break them down. You want to make $70k this year? Great. Now how exactly are you going to do that?
If you’re a wedding photographer, for example, exactly how many weddings will you have to book per month? What months are going to be your biggest challenges, and how can you prepare for them? Do you want to take on more destination weddings? What steps do you need to take to make that happen?
After you have the answers to those questions, break them down further. And further yet.
The more you break down your larger goals into smaller, specific, detailed goals, the easier they will be to accomplish.
Then keep on it. You want to re-visit this plan a couple times each month to make sure things stay on track.
2.) Embrace Change
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
What a horrible, horrible business mantra. Just because something currently works doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way to do things. Before this year gets too underway, sit down and take a look at every aspect of your business and see if there is somewhere that can be improved. A good place to start is with the following three principles: organize, cut, and automate.
Organize: Receipts, expenses, client contracts, project proposals, schedules, email lists
Cut: Excess gear, outdated backdrops & props, old portfolio photos, bad clients, bad employees
Automate: Social media posts, email subscriptions, website analytics, product orders, invoices
This not only clears out the clutter, but it also frees up more time. Just imagine what you could do! So much room for activities!
And speaking of embracing change…
3.) Explore New Social Media
Look, I get it. There are a million different social media platforms out there and just thinking about learning the ins and outs of all of them can be downright exhausting, but this is the world we live in. Social media is an essential marketing tool, and if you stick with the old versions of marketing, you’re going to get left behind.
At the start of this year, the vast majority of my social media marketing was done through Facebook and Instagram. Now, as Facebook reach slowly dwindles, Periscope and Snapchat have risen through the ranks. With Snapchat, I can connect with a younger audience, and show how I make backdrops and prepare for shoots. With Periscope, I’m able to broadcast live, interactive photoshoots from under the water. I can’t do that with Facebook and I can’t do that with Instagram. In fact, Periscope has been so instrumental in my business that I’m actually speaking at their next summit on a panel for photographers. Had I stayed in my tiny little social media bubble, I’d be missing out on an incredible opportunity to connect with my target audience.
So for 2016, spread your wings a bit. It is frustrating to learn a whole new social media platform, but if you want to grow your business, you’ve got to be up-to-date on the most effective marketing practices.
4.) Rethink How You Feel About Expenses
A common mistake many new business owners (including myself) make is to categorize expenses as a “debit” to their potential income. They see expenses as a bad thing, as something that deducts from the overall net profit of their company.
Expenses are investments. They are ways to grow your company. You aren’t looking for ways to eliminate expenses; you’re looking for ways to get the most return for them.
If you’re spending $100/mo on a particular serice and it isn’t doing much for you, don’t think in terms of “If I cut that service, I’ll be making an extra $100/mo.” Think instead in terms of how you can re-direct that $100/mo into a more profitable return.
Don’t cut the expenses, re-evaluate them.
5.) Network Your Ass Off
Never assume someone in a different industry can’t give you valuable advice about your own. Believe it or not, my most valuable business insight did not come from fellow photographers, but instead from authors, graphic designers, a bicycle shop owner and a professional scrapbooker (yes, that’s a real job).
Don’t limit your networking circle to people from the same perspective. Email a local business that’s been killing it lately and buy them a cup of coffee to talk business; even better if they aren’t direct competition, since they’ll be more likely to share their success strategies. Ask about their marketing campaigns, what works and what doesn’t. Ask how they keep such a high rate of return customers. Ask how they got featured in that large publication you saw them in.
Then listen. There is a treasure trove of information to be had there.
6.) Improve What You Have To Offer
It goes without saying your product or service in your 5th year of business should be more valuable than it was in your first year of business, but time alone will not guarantee it.
So improve your photography! Take a class, attend a workshop or just get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot! Create a Pinterest board of your favorite photographs and figure out why you gravitate to them. Is it the editing style, the content, or the overall feel of the image? Are they clean and minimal or busy and detailed? Are they bold with high contrast or soft and dreamy? When you know the exact elements of what you’re trying to capture, it makes it easier to apply those elements to your own work, and the higher quality your work, the more excited you are to promote it.
7.) Update Your Online Presence
Folks, we’re in the 21st century, which means technology is running our lives. If you don’t have a website (and ideally, a blog and a strong social media presence), you’re well on your way to being obsolete.
Get a website that works. You want one that’s responsive to different screen formats and has a decent mobile version. It should be easy to navigate, with links to your bio, contact information, portfolio and social media accounts. I run my website through Squarespace and I absolutely love it.
8.) Get Rejected
If you aren’t annoying someone, you aren’t doing it right. Get out there and sell yourself! I was rejected by the same company 3 years in a row before they finally took me on. They ignored my inquiries the first 2 years, sent me a rejection email last year (at least “no” is better than nothing), and then finally accepted me as a company ambassador this year. The lesson: rejection is not permanent. If you get a “no” just put it in your back pocket, improve what you need to improve and try again next year.
9.) Make a Decision Already
Your time is valuable, and standing around splitting hairs is a productivity killer. Some business decisions that take some serious thought and time to work through, but the majority are not that intense. Can’t decide on a font for that flyer? Just pick one. Stuck on a background color for your website? Just pick one. Debating between bringing muffins or donuts to the morning meeting for the love of God just pick one.
Sidenote – this is the entire reason I created Photofern.com. So often we become paralyzed by everything we have to do in addition to taking photos, like editing photos, drawing up client contracts, creating marketing materials – yeah, that’s all available for download right over here. Save yourself some time to get to the important stuff.
10.) Schedule Vacation Time
You can’t go 100% all the time. You’re literally going to work yourself into the ground. Set your email and voicemail with an automated “out of office” message and take a long weekend once in a while. Take the family out to the lake, have a crazy night on the town and spend two days recovering, or just curl up on your couch and binge-watch House of Cards.
Tune out for a bit and hit the ground running when you get back. Trust me, you need this.
Here’s to business success in the New Year!
You will very rarely, if ever, catch me wearing a pair of matching socks.
I never match my socks. Ever. And not because I think it looks cool, or I lost some random bet or something, but for an entirely different reason.
Years ago (maybe 10? 12?), I read a published study that had broken down the amount of time the average person spends doing certain tasks in their lifetime. How much time they spend watching television, commuting in traffic, sleeping, and you guessed it, matching their socks.
It completely changed me.
The average person, I learned, spent about a month of their lives matching their socks.
In the scale of your entire life, one month might not seem like a shocking amount of time to spend matching socks, but to me, it was terrifying. I instantly pictured myself as an old woman, laying on my deathbed. A reel of my entire life was playing like a drive-thru movie, projecting on the wall in front of me.
I see my loving husband, alone, cooking dinner in our kitchen, the camera pans around the room to find me, but I’m not there. I’m in the laundry room, matching socks. A phone rings and I see it’s a call from my mom, but I ignore it because I can’t talk right now, I’m matching socks. Our family dog drops a Frisbee at my feet, but I can’t throw it, because I’m too busy matching socks. A comet streaks across the sky, my grandmother plays the piano, entire seasons come and go and I miss them all because I’m matching socks. In a small episode of admittedly, completely nonsensical paranoia, I pictured my entire life flashing before my eyes – and me missing all of it – because I was too busy, matching socks.
Right in that second, I vowed to never again, for any reason, spend any given amount of time searching for matching socks.
Then I had my daughter.
Being a mom was an entirely new role I wasn’t sure I would fit into. Babies are fragile, delicate little things and let’s be honest, no one has ever entrusted me with anything fragile or delicate in my entire life. That bag of flour “baby” they give you in high-school Home Economics class to keep “alive” for the semester? I baked a cake with that bitch and moved on. Babies have just…never really been my thing.
So as my due date loomed closer and closer, I became increasingly more anxious of what my future relationship would be with my newborn daughter. Would I stare lovingly into her eyes? Would I see a younger version of myself? Would she laugh at my jokes?
God I hope she laughs at my jokes…
But all that worrying was for nothing; on September 24th at 4:43 in the morning, my husband and I found ourselves holding the healthiest, hands down most beautiful baby girl we had ever seen. All that sappy Hallmark crap they tell you about holding your child for the first time – totally true. I was a mom, through and through.
After we got our bearings we did what every new parent does nowadays: took our announcement to social media. “Look what we made!” I proudly exclaimed on Instagram and Facebook. “Look at our adorable baby girl! Look how perfect she is! LOOK AT HER GODDAMNIT!”
We spent the entire day in the hospital, learning how to hold her, change her diaper and breastfeed. We learned that the little bit of dry skin around her hands and feet were totally normal, and just because she flipped off the lab technician that drew her blood doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a genius…although it could mean she does take after her mother.
As the day drew to a close, my husband lay sleeping on the couch, while I held our sleeping daughter against my chest. Very carefully, I reached for my cellphone.
I opened Facebook and read the many congratulatory comments from friends and family. My heart swelled with pride. I couldn’t wait for everyone to meet her! I stared at her picture again, then the photo of my husband holding his daughter for the first time. What an unbelievably emotional day. Just as I was about to put my phone down I hit the “news” section of my mobile Facebook app, and it took me to my feed. And out of complete habit, I did what every other person would naturally do…I started scrolling.
Before I knew it, I was browsing my Facebook feed like it was any other day: meme, pumpkin spice latte, clickbait article, diet product sales pitch, funny puppy video, sunset photo, political article, meme, baby, meme, baby meme…
For seven minutes.
After I put my phone down I looked at my little girl, and my heart sank. She was awake. What had she been doing for those seven minutes? Had she opened her eyes for a second to look at her mother? Did her mouth do one of those tiny, adorable reflex smiles? Did she open her hand to look for mine? And what was I occupied with that was so important to miss any of those moments? Browsing memes and latte photos? Oh dear god…
Almost instantaneously, a decade’s worth of worst fears was realized. While real life was happening right in front of me, I was missing it. I was elsewhere.
I was matching socks.
Look, I’m not going to condemn social media or delete all my accounts the second after I upload this post. I love social media. I love that in just a few seconds I was able to announce the birth of my daughter to almost all of my family and friends. I also love that standing in line at the post office or DMV is infinitely less boring when you’re browsing photos of cats with Trump hair. Hell I spent 20 minutes laughing at this video yesterday and at the end of my life you can bet your ass I’ll still consider it time well spent.
But social media can have its downsides, and for me, it’s the ability to pull focus from what’s happening right in front of me, right now. My mind is already a swirling pool of chaos, so when you throw in a mess of kittens, memes, political rants, cookie recipes and God knows what else, you end up with Pandora’s box of distraction.
So it’s time for me to address my relationship with social media. If one sock symbolizes actual, legitimate interaction with my online community, its partner sock would be the mindless, constant scrolling that comes with it. And how much time, at the end of my life, am I giving up to this scrolling? Will I really be laying on my deathbed, thinking to myself, “You know, I really wish I would’ve spent more time browsing Facebook.” Probably the same amount of time I would’ve wished I had spent more time matching socks.
And as you guys already know, I no longer have any room in my life for matching socks :).
Today is my 31st birthday!
But before I get on to that, I have to write this post. I need to write this post. And I’ll warn you now…this one’s got some language.
I used to be a birthday hater. I dreaded it. And not because I hated being the center of attention or because I was getting older or anything like that, but because I had been straight-up conditioned to hate my birthday.
My childhood, without getting too much into it, wasn’t the greatest. Our household was run by my adopted father, who was a literal – diagnosed and everything – psychopath. Birthdays (along with Christmas of course) were his favorite days. He’d give us gifts, only to make us watch him destroy them. He handed out abusive, creative punishments, without any reason except to “test them out for later”. Each week leading up to our birthday he’d grow giddy with anticipation, while the rest of the family lost sleep and wondered what horrible thing he would come up with. Each year, as my special day got closer and closer I’d plead to any powerful existential being willing to listen to please, please let my birthday go unnoticed this year…but it never did.
Every birthday I could ever remember had been controlled by this man, so even when I moved out, I remained terrified of my own birthday. The thought alone still made my hands shake and my stomach queasy. I kept it a secret from everyone I met. I wanted absolutely no part in it.
Then, one day, as a freshman in college, I got a phone-call from my dad. He screamed at me from the other end of the line. I placed the phone on the dresser and sat on my bed. I could hear his voice, but not what he was saying. I didn’t want to know what he was saying.
My roommate pointed to the phone and asked, “Who’s that?”
“My dad,” I answered.
“What’s he yelling about?”
“Nothing, really. He just calls to yell.”
She stared at me, then asked, “Then why don’t you just hang up the phone?”
I stared back for a second while I considered it. I hadn’t lived at home for years. He’s 8 hours away in a different state. He doesn’t pay for a cent of college. Everything I own (car, cell phone, etc.) is all in my name. There is literally nothing he could do.
So I hung up the phone.
“Better?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. Then out of nowhere, I confessed, “My birthday was 2 weeks ago.”
“Really?!” she shouted, “We should celebrate!” and darted off into the kitchen.
Sitting in the kitchen of my dorm room, watching my roommate bake some cupcakes, it occurred to me that for the first time, I was actually going to celebrate my birthday.
And I. Felt. Free.
I’m not sure why it took so long. I had moved out long before I was 18. I’d had plenty of birthdays without him, but I still had the same frame of mind: that no matter where I was or who I was with, every year on October 16th my life would turn into a living hell.
What a bullshit way of thinking.
As understandable as it is that I should hate my own birthday, there comes a point when I’ve got to make the choice: let someone drain me of happiness 1 day of every year for the rest of my life, or to take back something that is rightfully mine, and goddamnit, it’s my motherfucking birthday.
So I’ve been making up for stolen time. Now, every year, I want a cake, loaded with candles. If I’m at a bar, I want a free shot. If I’m at a restaurant, I want free desert with the entire staff singing a horribly embarrassing version of ‘Happy Birthday’. I also want balloons and streamers and a birthday hat and any other cheesy birthday item that I’m technically too old to have. I want to be a kid again, every year, on my birthday.
And it’s worked – my birthday is now one of my favorite days of the year. There have been surprise parties and get-togethers with friends, quiet movie nights at home and long walks around the neighborhood. Hell my husband even asked me to marry him on my birthday.
Even if every single thing goes wrong, it doesn’t matter. My birthday is mine again. I have one extra day every year that I never had before.
We all have a part of our past that is holding us back in some way. Some sort of insecurity that just keeps hanging on or an outdated fear we’ve never confronted. Something that’s robbing us of a better day, a better relationship, a better career…a better life.
What do you have that is stealing thunder in your life? Is it a toxic person? A job that hasn’t challenged you in years? A reoccurring negative thought process? Whatever it is, there is always an opportunity to do something about it, and it might be something as small and simple as hanging up the phone.
Take a look around. If something is holding you back, I beg of you, sit down, take a few deep breaths, and confront it.
As for me, today is my birthday. I turn 31, it’s going to be awesome, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
There’s nothing quite as depressing as the sound of silence in a cubicle.
The incessant buzzing of the air conditioner and the relentless squeaking of a run-down office chair fills the air, broken only by the telltale sound of an employee attempting to surreptitiously remove the Ceran wrap from his late lunch. Fingers scurry across keyboards, mouses click, and chipper voices answer phones with that identical artificially caring voice they’ve used for the last 10 years. I sit in the back, as close to the only window as possible, undaunted by the measly view it provides. The sight of the adjacent building, just two feet away, is the only connection I have to the outside world.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is my nightmare.
I have decided that an office is the ultimate prison; one designed to keep its prisoners willingly confined, brainwashed by the sight of the strategically placed metaphorical carrot just inches beyond their grasp. I feel as if I have signed a contract without reading the fine print, ushered ahead to the next important benefit while passing over the sacrifices needed to reach said benefit. Even the fluorescent lights above flicker to remind me of the task at hand, like the most effective of prison guards; jarring and emotionless.
I stare at the computer screen before me and click my pen against my teeth, the scent of Windex and carpet hanging in the air. This is not my computer. This is not my desk. This is Patty’s desk, and hers is the bar to which all following cubicles will be measured. Her functional knick-knacks confuse me, and I feel even more out of place. A container of goo meant to make fingers sticky (for turning pages) and a bottle of Germ-ex sit directly next to the keyboard. I do not own a bottle of Germ-ex. I welcome the dirt and grime of the natural world. Oh how I long for the touch of grass…
Next to a colorful array of pens (the likely only allowed form of creativity or self-expression), is a palm tree post-it note container, symbolizing the relaxing beach she has probably desperately been saving her vacation days for. She has months’ worth of vacation days saved up, yet her planner hangs on the cork-board to the right, rows of assignments filling it: typing, filing, interviewing, typing, staffing. Is this what my life will soon become? Am the next generation of Patty’s?
But the most disheartening trinket of all is the digital calendar on her computer that displays a different “inspirational phrase” daily.
Today’s? “Smile. I like your sense of humor.” Great, a computer is telling me it likes my sense of humor. I have already discovered that no one in this particular job likes my sense of humor, so it’s ironic that a computer would have that opinion. Rather, I think it’s mocking me. Mocking my lack of humor and instead exposing my dutiful, uninspiring appropriateness that has replaced it. Within two weeks my wit has given way to internal cynicism. I used to be funny.
My stare is broken by the flicker of the fluorescent prison guard. Back to work. Deep breaths…
That was me, just 4 years ago.
No, I’m serious – that’s an actual snippet from an old blog post dated August of 2011. While there is nothing wrong with working in an office, it wasn’t for me, and I was definitely not doing well.
Sitting in the office of my first counselor job straight after completing my Master’s, I was on the edge of a complete breakdown. I cried all the time. Once, while driving around on a random Tuesday, we passed an enormous house and my husband casually said, “Woah, I wish we lived there!” I replied with, “I wish it was Friday,” and burst into tears. Sometimes it didn’t even take a trigger; I’d just sit in the bedroom, stare at a pair of “professional work shoes” and cry.
I didn’t last long. Within 3 weeks I was fired for following a code of ethics that apparently my employer didn’t share with the rest of the mental health profession. I came home, told my husband the news and he and our friend Bill took me out for a game of golf (I drove the cart through a fence) and a night of never-ending beer and buffalo wings, which, as it turns out, is the perfect cure for that ‘just getting fired’ feeling.
The next day, I told my husband I was changing careers. I told him I needed to do something creative for a living or there was a chance I may just collapse in on myself like a dying star. He agreed.
I had no idea what I wanted to do though, so I made a list. I wrote down every single creative job I could think of…and I mean everything. I listed actor, musician, painter, cartoonist, interior designer, dancer, filmmaker, and about a bajillion other possible jobs. I narrowed it down based on location (I wasn’t moving), required education (I couldn’t afford to go back to school) and required physical development (it was a little late to start a career as a professional ballet dancer). I was left with a list of 3 options: writer, photographer and cake decorator. On a whim, I chose photographer.
I didn’t even own a camera.
Cue the unrelenting skepticism. People thought I had snapped. They thought I was going through a phase. I had been accepted into medical school and was set to attend in the spring – giving up an opportunity like that was nothing short of insane, they said. My husband was the only person who had my back at all times, while others just pretended none of this was happening. Friends asked when I’d be leaving for med school. Family mentioned when they heard of a new counselor position opening up. I was mocked constantly and openly. According to general consensus, I had just made the worst career decision of all time.
But wait…why am I telling you all of this?
Because today, I paid off my student loans.
Today, I paid off $40,000 in student loans that I acquired pursuing degree programs everyone told me would lead to a financially stable and satisfying career, all with money I made from a career everyone told me was the equivalent of financial suicide.
I spent $40k to guarantee myself a “real job” then paid it off with money made from a “hobby”.
Suck it, haters.
To be completely honest, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time fantasizing about how I would celebrate when this day came. Perhaps I’d buy a plane ticket to a faraway beach and sit under an umbrella while someone brought me a never-ending supply of margaritas, or better yet maybe I’d take a trip down to the Billings animal shelter and spend the day adopting every single pet in the mothafuckin’ place. Who knows, maybe I’d run through the streets of Billings shouting, “NO STUDENT LOANS, BITCHES!” all while throwing dollar bills in the air behind me…and then later going back to retrieve them of course because let’s be honest, I still need those and I’m not in a music video.
But now that this day is finally here, all I want to do is write about it. All I want is to let you know that if you’re in a similar situation I was in 4 years ago, where you feel completely trapped, depressed and utterly terrified at the idea of starting over, there is a way out.
We have these struggles in every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s a career move or a bad relationship, there are always changes we avoid making even when our gut is telling us, indisputably, that something is wrong. We’re terrified of all that time and effort (or in my case, 6 years and $40,000) being for nothing. It’s not easy, but there comes a point where you either make the decision to keep pouring in resources to a dead cause, or cut your losses and head in a new direction. Remember, time and effort already spent is not an indicator of time and effort to be sacrificed in the future.
Regardless of all the embarrassment and fear that comes with putting yourself out there, sooner or later all of it passes and all you’re left with are the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. Each day is an opportunity to take a small step in a new direction. If you’re unhappy, change something. Good things don’t come to those that wait; good things come to those that know what they want and work their asses off to get it.
Four years ago I was at the bottom of a massively large financial hole, stuck in a career path I had chosen to pursue, and scared stiff of the embarrassment I would face knowing I’d have to explain my decision to do a complete career 180. And just last week, I was finishing up a shoot at Flathead Lake, and someone mentioned having to go to work the next day and I thought to myself, “I am at work. This is my job. I’m getting paid to be here, right now, sitting in the sunshine on the shoreline of one of the most beautiful places in Montana. This is what I do for a living.”
“This is my life now.”
For any of you out there on your path to photography, I made something just for you. Something I really, really wish had been there when I first started.
Ah, “photography”, you loosely defined word that everyone seems to have their own definition of. It’s amazing how polarizing you can be, isn’t it?
And one of your most polarizing aspects seems to be exactly how much retouching is considered reasonable. Purists claim no retouching of any kind is allowed (then they usually reference Ansel Adams, which is quite ironic considering the amount of dodging and burning he brought to the field), while others gladly accept Photoshop as a regular part of their photography tool-belt.
In general though, there’s a viewpoint around the photography community, that too much Photoshop is a bad thing. That it destroys photography as we know it, and those who retouch an absurd amount should be banned or beheaded or at least mildly reprimanded (depending on which Facebook group you happen to be in). But before we all start gathering our pitchforks, can we maybe examine this concept of over-retouching for just a second?
First of all, let’s all admit that the term “over-retouching” is pretty specific to the type of photography in discussion. In photojournalism or documentary style photography, even the slightest adjustment in Lightroom may be completely off-limits, yet for someone such as myself, who makes a living on work that admittedly straddles the line between photography and photo-manipulation, the definition of “too much” is entirely subjective.
And speaking of subjectivity, this brings me to my second point: we each have a preference for a particular editing style. I, for example, am not a huge fan of HDR. Actually let me rephrase that: I loathe the use of HDR. I can’t stand it. Out of 1,000 examples of what would be considered “well done” HDR, I’d only admit to liking one or two photos…and that’s strictly on the occasion that the photographer whose photos they were was standing right next to me and I didn’t want to completely crush his soul. But I’d be lying, because no matter how far down I dig, I just can’t bring myself to like HDR treatment of photographs.
However, as much as I hate this particular editing style, that doesn’t mean it should be banned from ever being used. It doesn’t mean I should be breaking down other photographers simply because they do enjoy it as an editing technique. If anything, it only means that I won’t be using HDR anytime soon on my own photographs. It’s a personal preference and nothing more.
Lastly though, the real issue I have with such hateful rhetoric of “over-retouched” photos is this: doesn’t everyone start off with a little too much adjusting?
Granted, if you started in the days of film and you didn’t have your own darkroom, it was probably pretty tough to manipulate anything in post-processing. But let’s talk about the 21st century, when most new photographers started out with access to both a camera and at least a decent version of Photoshop or Lightroom. Didn’t we all go a little crazy in the beginning?
I know I did. I was burning up those saturation and clarity sliders. Everything needed to be brighter! More color! More contrast! More, more, more, MORE!! (Cue evil, maniacal laughter here.)
My early work, like so many other photographers, was awful. I wasn’t experienced enough to be able to see color casts or recognize the breakdown of color information from over-manipulation. My skin tones were severe and unnatural…and I had no idea. I tried my hardest to get the best possible shot in-camera, and then adjusted however much I needed to make the photo “better” in post…or at least what I thought was better. Looking back though, everything looked pretty damn…well…amateur (in fact, if you scroll to the bottom of my Flickr account, you can see exactly what I’m talking about – I haven’t taken one photo down since the beginning).
People tried to help, but their feedback fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t that I was trying to be stubborn; I honestly just had no idea how to tell the difference between good and bad photography, and I simply couldn’t understand their critiques. They said the skin tones were bluish – I couldn’t see it. They said the vignette was too strong – I didn’t know what a vignette was. In short, I was exactly like the vast majority of the general public, because in terms of photography skills, I wasn’t a photographer yet. I was still a member of the general public…except with a camera in my hands and Photoshop at my disposal.
As embarrassing as it is to look through my early photos, I’m glad I spent the beginning of my career in the “overly-retouched” category, because it was the only way I was able to learn. All of that experimenting brought me to where I am now, where I rarely, if ever, use the saturation slider. My editing style leans towards a much softer and much more natural aesthetic – especially the more I shoot film.
Looking back though, if people had consistently destroyed me for my use of over-retouching, I may have completely avoided Photoshop altogether and I wouldn’t have learned near the amount of useful information I know now.
Therefore, after all this examination, I raise the question: why the constant bashing of overly-retouched photos? Either it’s overly-retouched according to your own personal preference, in which case your bashing serves only to prove your own photography superior in some conceited way, or the retouching really is awfully done, in which case it’s probably a new photographer simply feeling out their own editing style, and your bashing serves…well the exact same purpose.
So can we call a truce? Can we just admit a few simple points here:
1.) Every photographer has a different editing style, some that we find pleasing and some that we don’t. If someone’s editing style doesn’t match your own preference, certainly you can agree to disagree in a somewhat respectful manner, right?
2.) Some photographers simply haven’t reached the point in their development when they’re able to recognize their own over-retouching, in which case surely it’s possible to still offer them help without completely crucifying them for it as well?
3.) We were all there too at some point. None of us started out with perfect shots straight out of camera and we certainly didn’t have the perfect editing skills to accentuate the decent shots we did take. We’re all probably a little embarrassed to go through our own early work, and mocking other photographers because they might be in a different stage of development than you is really a pretty dick move overall, agreed?
I sure hope so. Because I really don’t have a problem seeing a cluster of poor, “overly-retouched” photos scrolling through my news feed from a new photographer excited about learning how to dodge and burn for the first time. Are they probably grossly overdone? Of course they are, but I’m sure we all overused the dodge and burn technique just as much the first time we learned about it too. It does bother me though, to see a collection of pompous, bitter “professional” opinions about how honest editing mistakes and experiments are destroying the industry. For the love of Ansel just let people play around and find their style, and in the meantime, remember where you came from and don’t be such an ass about someone else’s journey.
But that’s all just personal preference, of course ;).
I have had a shitty, shitty week.
Not like the kind of week, where you have a flat tire, an overdraft fee and get gum stuck in your hair, but the kind that makes you question everything about who you even are in the first place. The kind that leaves you feeling lost, confused and hopeless.
It all came to a point yesterday at 7:00 am sharp. Our cat, Study Buddy, had been sick for some time and in and out of the vet about once a week for the last month. He was in pain, but no one could figure out what was wrong. I woke up at 7:00 and went to check on him on the floor at the foot of the bed, and he couldn’t even move. I called the vet, they fit us in at 9:00 (first appointment of the day), and I curled up on the floor next to him with a blanket and pet him for the next 2 hours. I cried the entire time…I knew I was saying goodbye.
Sure enough, 9:00 came, and the vet ran through our options – none of which were treatable. I held him in my arms and Chris and I both pet him and talked to him until he fell asleep, and then was gone. I kept holding him and petting him while they went over cremation options (burying was out of the question – we’re planning on moving in a few years and I didn’t want him to get left behind). I headed home from the vet’s office and Chris went to work.
I cried all day. Like uncontrollable, body-shaking sobbing. All day. I ate nothing, I drank nothing. I tried to work, but it was futile. Then around 2:30 I decided to chop off all my hair. I cut 12 inches off. It didn’t help. The loss of my hair, did not in fact, bring back my pet. I cried some more.
*And before a single one of you says, “Come on, it’s just a cat, pull yourself together.” No, no it’s not, and fuck you. It’s a member of the family, and I’ll grieve in whatever way keeps me out of jail.
Problem is though, yesterday was just the cherry on top of the shit-filled sundae that has been my week…and it was only Wednesday. Rejection letters, broken gear, taxes, a broke down car, canceled workshop seats, wedding refunds, medical bills, a debt collector trying to collect a debt that isn’t mine and more fucking snow – it just kept adding up. And on top of everything…I’m pregnant (which I haven’t formally announced yet, so that’s just a little secret for you blog subscribers) which means lots of exhaustion and time spent in the bathroom, hugging the toilet. By the time yesterday rolled around all I wanted to do was stand on top of a very high building and throw watermelons over the edge…but instead I was in a vet’s office, saying goodbye to my best friend. I was done. With everything.
When Chris got home I had crawled so deeply into a hole there was little chance of reaching me. I wanted everything to stop. I wanted to be able to go to work at a meaningless job, do meaningless tasks, come home and leave everything at the office. I wanted to be able to go for a run again without puking. I wanted to stop stressing over how much our lives are going to change at the end of September when we come home from the hospital with a new baby. About how much more money we’re going to need to make to care for an infant. About how much more art I was going to need to produce, and sell, in order to make that money. I wanted to be responsible for nothing. Fuck paying for the car to get fixed, they can keep it. I just wanted to be done. Done, done, done.
Now I know I signed up for this. I know this is the life I chose and I know I’ve actually got it pretty damn good. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful. I make art for a living. Not a lot of people can say that. I come home every day to the most supportive, loving man I have ever known, and after about a year and a half of trying, we’re finally going to be able to start a family…and that’s a pretty amazing notch in the good news column too. But if one more person asks me to work for free, or refers to my pregnancy as a “magical time” and then proceeds to give me unsolicited advice about how to raise my future child, I will murder them in broad daylight.
I’ve been going back and forth about sharing this. Mostly because I follow a lot of very famous photographers, and none of them ever write about imploding in on themselves like a dying star. Their feeds are bright and shiny and happy, happy, happy. “Look where I’ve been featured! Look at what I’m selling! Check out how awesome I am! Buy my book, attend my workshop, click this link and spend money on whatever it leads to!” Surely if they are all following the same formula, and they are all very successful, wouldn’t it make sense for me to follow that formula too? To hide these ridiculous insecurities? To pretend, even on the days I want to throw in the towel and apply for a job at Target, that everything is sparkling with awesomeness?
Maybe. But I’d rather not. It’s unrealistic to think that everything is always perfect and awesome because a lot of the time, it isn’t. And even though there are ways to help with a little self doubt, there are also times when none of that works. When the only thing that is going to help bring you back to reality is crawling under your desk, having yourself a good cry and then approaching even the smallest of goals. I remember a little while ago I was sick, in Walmart, standing in the cracker aisle in front of the Saltines, absolutely bawling…because I couldn’t find the Saltines. A lady came, asked why I was crying, I mumbled incoherently and she pointed in front of me. And just like that, I was fine. All it took to calm me down, literally, was a box of Saltines.
I’m not writing this to vent. Or even for a little sympathy. Trust me, I vented a lot yesterday, and sympathy just reminds me of stuff I want to forget right now. I’m writing this because I want you to know that everyone has times like these, and to let you know that if you’re in the same situation, it will eventually get better. While yesterday was a horrible, horrible day in an already awful week, today is a little better. I’m still sad, I’m still overwhelmed, and I am wondering where all my hair went, but for the most part, I’m okay. And hey, I’ve never had short hair before, and it is kind of fun. I guess I was due for a change anyway.
Support is a funny thing.
As an artist, 96% of our career is spent dealing with rejection. Rejection from friends, family, other artists and even the art world itself. Making a living from art can be a very long and lonely, misunderstood journey, especially in the beginning, and having a decent support system can help make that early journey a little more bearable.
But just as we’re often learning the ropes of how to be an artist, we also know that you’re learning the ropes of how to best support us. We need you, and here are the best ways you can help us out.
Please Respect What We Do
All of that time you spent devoting yourself to learning your craft, whether it be accounting, nursing or even actual rocket science, we’ve devoted to learning ours too, so don’t diminish our ability by saying your kid could do what we do, or you yourself could probably do the same thing if you just had a little extra time. No, you couldn’t. I certainly couldn’t carry out nursing duties for a full day anymore than you could shoot an entire wedding or make a composite of 60 photographs into one believable art piece. Every profession has a learning curve that people spend years to overcome, and ours is no different.
This IS Our “Real” Job
Any job that puts real food on the table and real money in our pocket is a real job. Some of us have part-time jobs, some of us have full-time jobs and some of us have reached the point where we can survive off our art alone. Some of us don’t want to strictly survive off our art. We’re all different, and no matter how we bring income into our home, including from our artistic endeavors, it all still counts as a real job.
As a photographer, I have several real jobs. I sell prints through galleries and license images for use on book covers, but I also teach and even shoot the occasional wedding. Each of these jobs are just as real as any other – none of them better or worse.
It’s Okay if You Don’t Understand
We know we’re odd. Frankly, if we weren’t at least a little quirky we’d probably make some pretty boring art. So even if you don’t understand our process, like locking ourselves in a room and listening to the same song on repeat for 16 hours, or hiking back to some remote cabin to get us out of a slump, that’s okay. You don’t need to understand it, and we really don’t expect you to. All you need to understand is that this is our process, and this is what we need to be most creative and most productive. Please don’t criticize us for the weird things we do to find inspiration – we promise we’ve already attempted the more socially acceptable ways, and they just didn’t work.
Don’t Ask Us To Work For Free
Please, please don’t ask us to work for free. We have to put the same amount of work into each piece we create, regardless of the price. The fact is, asking us to work for free puts us in a really awkward situation. It’s tough to say no to close friends or family. Don’t do that to us. If you want a piece of mine hanging in your home, buy it just as everyone else does. If you want several of my pieces hanging in your office, ask to lease them, just as everyone else does. It may seem like great exposure, but really, it’s a couple thousand dollars to print a whole collection and have it hung. On the off chance that one is sold (not a whole lot of art buyers walking through the halls of a tanning salon), it still doesn’t make my money back. Please, please don’t ask us to work for free.
Promote Our Work
And if you can’t buy our work (totally understandable) than at least try and promote it. Sharing my work through social media is the easiest way to help me out. Seeing that someone pushed the little share button next to a photo of mine is an incredible boost of encouragement.
Get to Know Our Craft
Sometimes, the reason it’s so difficult to support us is because you don’t realize what we really do. My mom thought it was impossible to make any money as a wedding photographer until I had her tag along one day on a 12-hour wedding shoot. The next day, I had her come over to the house while I showed her the process of culling down the images and editing them to perfection, then briefly showed her how I order prints, albums and everything else. I still had a good week’s worth of editing to do, I explained. She looked at me with complete exhaustion in her eyes, and asked how much the couple paid me for this amount of work. About $5,000, I replied.
Of course there’s more to it than that, but just those 2 days were enough to open her eyes a little bit. I’m doing a lot of work for a comparable amount of money, just like any other job.
When I slowly moved out of weddings and concentrated more on the art and teaching side of photography, she didn’t doubt me for a second. Now that she knew the logistics of what I was doing, she trusted me enough to make a smart decision for myself.
If you’re having trouble letting us pursue our dreams for fear that you’re watching us “throw our lives away”, get to know our profession first. You might be surprised how similar a career in art is to other, more traditional career paths.
Accept That Our Work Will Evolve
I started out my photography business shooting weddings, but then I started making singular art pieces and after that I began teaching. Now I absolutely love teaching and I can’t imagine giving that up. I’m very, very selective about the weddings I now shoot (I maybe only do 2 or 3 a year), and I spend most of my time creating and selling art and teaching others.
It may seem like we’re bouncing all over the place, but that’s okay. Just as anyone tries to find their niche, we’re trying to find ours too.
Stop With The Jokes
Let me be very, very clear on this one – your jokes, as lighthearted as you think they are, are not funny.
To you, it may seem like a clever bit of humor every now and then, something we just need to “lighten up” about, but understand that you are not the only ones making fun of us. Those little jokes don’t seem like much, but when you’re getting them from all angles, all the time, they can really add up. From an artist’s point of view, it’s a never-ending, constant bombardment of utter humility. For our entire lives we’ve been a little different, and people have always been very keen on making sure we’re well aware of it.
When we chose a career on the artistic side of the tracks, we knew what we were getting into. We accepted the fact that we’re going to have to put up with a lot of negativity and a lot of ridicule – but not from you. If you’re going to be on our side you’ve got to be on our side all the way. No backhanded comments, no sly double-meanings; and no slipping back and forth between encouraging and demoralizing. If someone makes a joke on our behalf, we expect you to stand up for us. That’s what a supportive person would do.
Allow For Open Lines of Communication
It’s going to be tough for us to make a living, especially in the beginning. And if we’re constantly trying something that isn’t working, while we bang our heads on the counter and our life savings slowly drains away, we’re going to need someone to talk to. Don’t berate us with “I told you so” and suggest we hang this shit up and get a “real” job already – help us with the logistics. Is there a reason why we aren’t making sales? Maybe we need to adjust our marketing campaign. Maybe our work just flat out sucks right now and we need to supplement our income in other ways while we work on improving. If we’re not making money, suggesting we get a second job isn’t mean – it’s realistic. Help us brainstorm ways to make this work.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Your words and your actions speak very different. You can’t give us the thumbs up but then point and laugh as soon as we can’t see you.
Think of it this way: if you were a football coach, you’d want me to come to your games. It shows I support what you do. It doesn’t matter if your team is any good or even if the game is an important one; just the fact that I come is appreciated. But everything gets canceled out if I’m ass about it. If I sit in the stands and complain that football is the most boring, pointless sport ever, and keep asking when we can leave, that’s not supportive. If I crack jokes with friends about how sad and pathetic your fans are for actually enjoying this, that’s not supportive either. As a coach, you’re part of a community, and respecting that entire community is part of supporting you.
It’s the same in the art world. You can’t come to my show and then sit in the corner, complain about how bored you are and make fun of the other artists. You can’t come to my live music performance and then mock the “idiots” in the crowd that “actually like this kind of music”. This is my community, and I’m a part of it. If you’re going to support me, you’ve got to support my community as well.
Speaking of My Community…
While we’re on the subject of community: all those people that come to my shows like the men with the weird beards and the funny scarves or the girls with crazy makeup, odd haircuts and homemade clothes? Yeah, a few things about that:
1.) These people are either my friends or my clients, both of which are incredibly valuable to me. Without them, I’d have a pretty difficult time making it in this industry. So if you want me to succeed, you better hope more and more of these strange little misfit creatures keep showing up, and on the off chance you get to interact with one, be nice.
2.) Keep in mind – I’m one of these misfit creatures too! I’m just as slightly off-kilter as everyone else, and when you make fun of them you’re also making fun of me.
3.) Take a look around – you’re in very, very unfamiliar territory. We might seem like awkward, fragile little things in general everyday life, but at one of our shows – we’re kind of the shit…and you’re vastly outnumbered. As Seth Rogan’s character wondered aloud in the movie Funny People:
“I wonder if Tom (from MySpace) and Craig from Craigslist ever got in a fight, who would win? Tom has more friends…Craig has weirder friends though…Craig has friends that are willing to do a lot more for cash, I’ll say that.”
Trust me, you do not want to piss off a collective group of people that don’t follow the same logic that you do.
Know That We Want You With Us
In the end, you’re more important than you realize. Sometimes we’ve got to just shrug it off, say we don’t need any kind of approval from anyone and who gives a shit what anyone thinks (believe me, I’ve been there too), but no one wants to do this alone. We want to be able to come to you when we make our first print sale or when we book our first huge event. We want to be able to talk to you when we’re feeling frustrated and hopeless. We want you on our side. In all honesty, we’re doubting ourselves 90% of time we’re creating anything, so having someone standing beside us is a really, really big deal. Even the slightest bit of encouragement from you can really go a long way towards helping us along, and that’s what you can provide for us.
Plus, a healthy support system also helps us create better art. New and interesting interpretations of our work help challenge us and help us to develop further, and as someone that we know has our best interests in mind, we can fully open ourselves up to your input. That’s a pretty safe space we’re letting you in there.
So keep supporting your artists, and we’ll keep putting great art back into the world :).
And if you’re looking for a little support yourself, know that I’ve been there too! Feel free to send me a message on my Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter, and don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE HERE for more posts like these!
I love New Year’s.
Halloween, Christmas and National Cat Day (obviously) are high on my list too, but New Year’s holds a special weight for me. It’s the resolutions that I’m so addicted to.
I love making them. I love hearing them. I write them down and put them in tables and graphs and color-coordinated folders and oh my god resolution party at my house tonight, don’t be late. The idea of a clean slate, filled in with good intentions and exciting possibilities just makes me bubble with anticipation. Yes, I realize I sound like a delirious 12-year old, but my entire personality is a bit like a delirious 12-year old…plus the New Year is here and I’m all sorts of giddy!
Now, my own personal resolution list is broken into categories and then subcategories with smaller, realistic goals in each step (like I said, I love making resolutions), but when it comes to photography, these are the New Year’s resolutions that I credit for the largest leaps in my photo development over the years.
Stop Hiding Behind Self Doubt
I’ve been there. I know how terrifying it is to submit to your first publication or to contact your first client. How scary it is to post a photo because in social media terms, zero positive comments can feel just as shitty as the possibility of one bad comment. Putting your work out there, putting yourself out there, especially in a field that is bombarded by a never-ending stream of insanely skilled and talented people, is terrifying.
But no one gets anywhere by playing it safe. You will never be completely confident trying something for the first time. That fear will always be there, and believe it or not that’s a good thing – it means you’re in a new realm outside your comfort zone. Acknowledge it, calm down, and take another tiny baby-step forward.
One way to start those baby-steps, is to do things as a practice run, then count to three and push the button. If you want to submit something to a magazine, for example, write out the email, include all the images and everything, telling yourself the entire time that it’s just for practice. Then at the end count to three and push send. Who cares if there’s a typo. Who cares if they never write back. This is just to get you used to the process and actually pushing “send” at the end.
Just remember, you get nowhere if you don’t try and as scary as it is, it gets easier every time.
Organize your shit. Assemble your gear so you know exactly what you have and where to find it. Classify your photos on separate hard drives in folders by dates and tag-words. Set up an interactive calendar and update it constantly. Classify email contacts as they come in. Ever heard of 17Hats.com? or PhotoFern.com? They’re amazing. Sign up and start using them.
Seek Useful Critique and Shut Your Mouth in Response
As I wrote here, in Dear New Photographer…, my fiance and my mom love me to the moon and back, but they’re horrible people to give me feedback on my photography. They’re waaaaaay too biased and they don’t know the first thing about what makes a good image. I’m guessing, your rock solid support system is the same way, so this year ask a real pro – not a Facebook “pro”, but someone established and reputable within your specific area of photography – to review your work and give you feedback.
And when they give you feedback, shut your mouth. Don’t argue, don’t try to defend yourself and don’t shut down. Really listen to what they are trying to say. You don’t have to use it, but if you’re asking for advice, don’t fight them on every little bit they try and give. Helpful feedback isn’t usually easy to hear, but it’s how you develop and move forward. Suck it up, take it like a champ and get better. This year.
Don’t Let Your Gear Impede Your Development
We all want bigger and better gear. The quality of photography gear out in the world today is astounding, and it’s improving so fast you’ll barely catch a glimpse of the latest and greatest before it’s overshadowed by something even better. Even as I’m writing this article I’ve got an Ebay tab open just to stare at things up for auction…stuff I drool over but can never realistically afford…maybe just pet through my computer screen. It’s so pretty…
But the gear does not make the photographer. When someone says, “I could take photos like too that if I had your fancy camera,” hand them your camera. Go ahead. They usually snap one or two photos (if that), panic and hand it back. It’s not about the gear itself, it’s knowing how to use it to create the vision you see in your head.
And the fact is, amazing images can be created with very basic gear. Yes, there are certain things that are essential to certain fields (a pro sport photographer is going to have a very hard time getting competitive shots of a Braves game with just a 50mm lens), but I’m talking about the bigger picture. Let this be the year you blame your gear no more: examine all possible options for improvement before asking yourself if it’s your lack of megapixels that’s holding you back.
And speaking of gear…
Come to Terms With Photoshop
Stop hating on Photoshop. It’s just another tool to add to your belt for Christ’s sake.
There has been push-back at every stage of photography. When digital first came out, diehard film addicts declared it the “death of photography” and that it “doesn’t count” if you aren’t shooting on film. Even when the first zoom lens was introduced, people complained that zooming any way besides moving your feet was lazy (that last one is hearsay of course, it’s not like I was alive when the first zoom lens came out). In any case, you get my point.
Photoshop is not the death of photography. It’s just another tool that allows you to create the image you’re going for. Keep an open mind and learn to use it in a way that best suits your photography goals.
Shoot Personal Projects
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…”
People get into photography for the fun of it, but the less you shoot for fun and the more you shoot for work the faster you can get burned out. Personal projects allow you to get back to your creative side and embrace photography for the reasons you originally started. Seek out that which you love and shoot it; once a week if you can, once a month at the bare minimum. Put together a creative fashion shoot or try out some crazy technique you saw on YouTube at 3:00 in the morning. Follow some of your favorite photographers and get inspired! Personal projects are the best way to move forward with your skills while reminding yourself why you started in the first place.
Get Along With Other Photographers
For the love of God let this be the year you stop avoiding other photographers. Not only are they great networking (one wedding photographer can’t shoot all the weddings in a season, they have to be referring to someone), but they’re also just awesome people! You will learn a ton and develop an amazing sense of community. Yes, some of them can be dicks but every town is bound to have at least a couple sour grapes. Avoid the assholes and you’ll be fine. The vast majority of photographers in your area are probably some of the most awesome people you could ever hope to meet.
If you’re a beginner, don’t be intimidated by pros. Reach out to them and start a dialogue. If you’re a pro, welcome the newbies. They just want the same thing you do. Slamming them for low prices isn’t doing anyone any good; they don’t know any better and they would very much like to get out of the low price nightmare, so help them out.
Take More Photos of Your Loved Ones
As photographers, a strange thing happens when we look at the end of our year in photos. Typically, we have plenty of new images in our portfolio of brides and seniors and parents with their smiling children, but we don’t have a ton of our own lives. The vast majority of photos I took of my fiance last year were iPhone photos. And they definitely weren’t very good ones. How awful is that?
So this year, turn the camera around. Take just one day, set it up on a tripod, set the 2-second timer and set the shutter to just keep clicking. Sit in front of it with your kids or your dog or spouse or whoever and just let it run. Do this and everyone will be thanking you for it for years to come. Which actually brings me to Resolution #9…
Print More Photos
How long have you owned a picture frame containing the photo it came with?! Are you kidding me? You’re a freakin’ photographer for crying out loud!!
I yell because I care…and also because I’m really yelling at myself. I continue to make this exact same mistake year after year after year. I have so many unused frames right now it’s downright shameful. I’m so embarrassed.
Stop looking at your photos on a computer screen and print the damn things already. Blow them up and plaster them all over your walls. Print out little sizes for Grandma and Grandpa to keep in their wallets. Print out a whole truckload of 4 x 6’s and 5 x 7’s and mail them to your friends and relatives. Print. Your. Photos.
Use Your Photography For Better
Photography is an amazing thing. There’s a reason people run back into a burning building for the family photo album; because photos are a part of our identity. As a photographer you have the ability to create an image that someone will cherish until the end of time. What an amazing power!
So this year, use that power for something more than paid family sessions or artistic creations. Donate your time and skills to a local charity (I shoot for the Rimrock Humane Society and Help Portrait). Run your own fundraiser for a good cause or use your photography to tell someone’s story that desperately needs to be heard. The ability to take a great photograph is more powerful than you know – embrace it and use the crap out of it.
Did I leave any off that deserve to be in the top 10? Let me know!
I love December. I love Christmas, I love all the sparkly lights and gingerbread everything, not to mention the fact that snow makes for fantastic photos. But besides all of that, I also love that it comes right before clean-slate January.
I’ll be honest; I make a lot of mistakes during the year. I’m either completely missing that little voice in the back of my head that warns me not to do something, or it’s completely drowned out by the other voice screaming at me that it’ll make for an epic story later. Either way, it’s not exactly a fool proof way of going through life, so by the time December rolls around, the mistakes have added up, and I’m very, very ready to see just how many of them were worth it.
That’s where these people come in. See I’m not necessarily interested in assessing measurable forms of progress at this time – that’s for later. This is about evaluating whether or not I’m anywhere closer to the kind of artist and person I want to be. Call me crazy, but after 7 years of college and 3 degrees that I don’t use but definitely pay student loans on, I’m no longer interested in just drifting along and hoping “things will work out.” No – if something isn’t working, it’s up to me to do something about it.
So at the end of the year I turn to my biggest inspirations in photography and business, and ask myself these questions:
– What qualities do they possess that I find so rousing, and am I any closer to possessing those qualities myself?
– What do I need to do to further become what I find so inspirational in others?
– Where have I strayed from the artist I want to be and how can I do better in 2015?
And to answer these questions, I give you my top 5 inspirations in photography and business, and exactly what I’m hoping to take away from each of them.
My background is in psychology, which might give some insight as to why I love Kubrick’s work so much. To him, everything is important. In The Shining, there are several long camera shots of Tommy riding his trike throughout the hotel, alternating between carpet and hardwood. The sound he makes on the carpet is barely audible, while the sound of the hardwood is enormous and uncomfortably loud. That rhythm: peaceful, near silence broken by harsh, jarring uneasiness is an actual torture tactic used to break people. How brilliant then, to include it in the early scenes of a horror movie.
In addition to his painful attention to detail, his work ethic was unparalleled. He used to shoot the same scene hundreds of times, until the actors were completely exhausted and even delirious. That scene where Jack Nicholson breaks down the door with the ax and yells, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” was a complete improvisation. If you watch the behind-the-scenes footage, just before the last take he was waving the ax around the room like a madman, laughing and dancing and making everyone pretty damn nervous. After 100 takes, that was the mental stage he was in, and it worked.
Kubrick actually holds the Guinness record for most takes in a dialogue scene in a movie (also for The Shining), and he was working on film! That kind of work ethic is pretty tough to find anymore. Where others may have shrugged after 40 takes and thought to themselves, “We’ll just make one of these work”, he didn’t. If something wasn’t working he stuck with it until it did. He was obsessive, detailed, persistent and never settled for anything less than his original vision – a perfect artist philosophy if there ever was one.
Alton Brown is a chef and author on Food Network. He originally had a show called Good Eats but you probably know him more as the host of Iron Chef America.
Admittedly, I love Food Network, for some right reasons and some wrong reasons. I love to cook, and I really do attempt the recipes I see on Giada’s show, though I’m saving Ina’s recipes for a time when I’ve got some extra cash to burn and am comfortable enough in my cooking skills not to royally screw up any ingredients I’m paying top dollar for. On the other hand though, Food Network is also my guilty pleasure. I don’t watch reality shows and I don’t watch dramatic soap operas, but when I’m in a horribly bad mood I watch the crap out of Food Network while texting my mom memes of the various “stars”.
But Alton Brown is an entirely different person altogether. On his show Good Eats, puppets explain the discovery of saffron while he builds homemade cooking contraptions that require the use of goggles “just in case” something goes wrong. It’s like taking a cooking class from Bill Nye the Science Guy. With puppets. And a shitload of valuable information.
What makes him so inspiring though, is he doesn’t just show how to put a recipe together, he shows why that recipe exists in the first place. I don’t know how many times I’ll be watching someone cook something and think to myself, “Screw that, I’ll just stick it in the microwave and then I won’t have to wait 3 hours.” During Alton’s show he explains the chemistry of why you definitely do not want to put this in the microwave – and that’s what makes a great educator. It’s not about giving you a quick fix, it’s about giving you a solid foundation to build upon so you can move forward on your own. The more you understand how something works, the more confident you are in experimenting with it.
So many “educators” are actually very stingy with the information they hold, and I hate that. They want you learn, but not too much – that would be threatening somehow. Alton Brown doesn’t care about any of that; he genuinely wants people to get as much information out of his show as they possibly can. That is a true educator: someone that is entirely unselfish about sharing their knowledge in the most effective way possible.
I hope I can live up to that standard; of being so utterly passionate about my field that I can’t wait to share the information I collect over the years. And I hope I get to meet Alton Brown someday. He makes homemade cooking equipment and I make homemade photography equipment. Maybe we could work together to build a camera that also cooks you up a grilled cheese sandwich. Don’t you want something like that? Of course you do. Make the meeting happen and it could be a reality.
Anthony Bourdain & Hunter S. Thompson
A few weeks ago I received an email that told me I have the same, “snarky, cynical writing style as useless ex-cokehead Anthony Bourdain, and the same rambling incoherence as Hunter S. Thompson.” I was thrilled. When my fiance got home I read him the good news and he congratulated me. Relating me to either Anthony Bourdain or Hunter S. Thompson is a joke of a comparison; they’re both actual, published writers and I’m a photographer that occasionally pens a rant-style blog post at 3:00 in the morning, but who cares?! As far as step one goes, it was a very good day in the Martin household.
Anthony Bourdain is another chef, author, and traveler of virtually everywhere. You might know him as the host of CNN’s Parts Unknown or the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. I idolize him because he’s curious, has an in-depth knowledge of food, an open disgust for convention and corruption along with a deep respect for other cultures. Hunter S. Thompson is another brilliant writer, most famous in my generation for writing the book the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was based on. He did a lot of other noteworthy things (some good, some very bad), but if his name sounds only vaguely familiar to you, there’s a good chance that’s where you know it from.
More importantly to me though, both of these men have been brutally authentic and have made no attempts to hide the parts of their past that others may have found “unsavory”. Instead of censoring themselves or creating some fabricated public persona, they’ve lived their lives essentially the same way they would’ve had they not been famous.
All of which make them two of the most “real” individuals on the short list of people I have never met but still look up to.
See, by traditional standards, I’m not a very perfect person. I’ve been fired from a number of jobs for what we’ll call a “lack of verbal filtration”, I believe any personal conflict can be solved with fire and besides the last 6 years (when my fiance realized he was dating a klepto and gave me an ultimatum), I didn’t really pay for much of anything. Once you’ve become fairly skilled at stealing shit, it’s pretty tough to make a conscious decision not to. But I can proudly say I’m about 6 years sober – besides a small relapse a couple years ago when I did some damage on a bottle of tequila and unsuccessfully tried to steal a cop car…while dancing…
But all those little imperfections and mistakes are also what attracts me to others. It’s how I relate to people. The fact is, if you’ve got a squeaky clean background…I don’t trust you. I’m not very interested in meeting, or learning from, an overly happy, lab-engineered, fake-as-shit personality meant to sell me some fantastical, non-existent concept of reality. How can you trust someone who is always, cheerful? Who describes every, single life experience as breathtakingly awesome? You can’t, because you know at some point or another, that person is lying. There is no way I can rely on one’s sincerity to convey life’s most truly stunning moments if they use the exact same vocabulary for life’s shittiest moments. It just doesn’t add up.
(Of course, no one says it better than Louis C.K. Push play. Trust me.)
That’s what I find so inspiring: they support my theory that censorship is boring, that value can still be found in a genuine voice with a candid message and that sugarcoating is completely overrated. When Anthony speaks highly of a specific restaurant, I know I can trust him, because if it were an absolutely shithole that should be avoided at all costs, I know he would tell me it’s an absolute shithole that should be avoided at all costs.
I like that my writing reflects almost perfectly the tone in which I speak: blunt, slightly sarcastic, fairly grammatically incorrect, inappropriate at times and usually dotted with some (if I may say so myself) exceptionally placed profanity. These two give me the green light to embrace that style; to write exactly what I feel needs to be written, minus the flowery language that would make it more digestible to the more delicate-minded masses. They inspire me to be honest and authentic to those that matter, and unapologetic to those that don’t.
As a sidenote, I really do hope I get to meet Anthony Bourdain in real life someday. Typically, on an occasion such as this, I’d crack some awkward, sexually explicit joke that no one gets, laugh at myself for too long and then look up only to wonder where the hell everyone went. I have a feeling he’d appreciate an awkward, sexually explicit joke though, so in the hypothetical world I’ve created (and frequently visit), Anthony Bourdain will think I’m hilarious and we’ll spend the day bullshitting while getting plowed on Montana brewed beer.
Without going into too much detail, let’s just say my childhood wasn’t really all that great. If we’re going by statistics, the probability of me becoming a heroin-addicted stripper was undoubtedly much, much higher than the probability of me gaining an income through legal means, dating a nice respectable young man and driving a car that doesn’t double as a getaway vehicle on the weekends. But hey, somehow I ended up on the happy and productive side of society, so I’ll take it.
But, as many of you probably know, those demons don’t just go away, and my personal theory is you can either get very, very good at hiding them (for the short period of time before you spontaneously combust), or you can embrace them and put them to good use. My mom is a perfect example of putting them to good use. She turns that craziness into straight focus. When I was in high school she wanted an ice cream truck, but she couldn’t find one, so she bought the pieces and built it (we run it every year here in Billings, it’s called Mr. Pugley’s Ice Cream). When she wants something she goes out and gets it, and when something is in her way, she either finds a way around it or she quite literally goes out, buys a torch and welds her way straight through it.
Honestly. I’ve seen it done. Welded the doors clean off.
She doesn’t see her past as a crutch, she sees it as a badge of honor. From what she’s been through, there is no possible way of breaking her now, and she knows it. She’s afraid of no one, she’s intimidated by no one and she wastes no time dealing with people that don’t have her best interests in mind. When there’s a problem, she fixes it. She’s basically Winston Wolfe from Pulp Fiction if he had been an Italian/Basque woman with a flair for cooking and a much better sense of humor.
Those two life perspectives of living through a horrible situation and using it to better yourself, as well as openly accepting whatever demons might be there is what I find so inspiring. Over the past few years I’ve learned to take a bad situation, pull a few lessons out of it and apply them. Once you’ve been through some real scary shit, the idea of being afraid to submit a photoshoot to a magazine is a joke. There are much more frightening things in the world. I know because I’ve lived through them. Push the button, send the email, move on with your life.
I’m proud that I am becoming more and more like my mother every day. Last year, my future mother-in-law and I were talking about how your childhood can shape who you are, and she asked if there were any parts of my dad that stuck with me. I said no (probably not entirely true, but I like to think so anyway), and she said, “But you’re not afraid of anything! And you’re…kind of crazy…” I thought for a second, then smiled and said, “Nope. That’s still all Mom.” 🙂
I am, hands down, my mother’s daughter, and if I grow more and more like her every year, I’ll count that as a win in my book.
Decide For Yourself…
Now that you know my main inspirations, and what I hope to gain from them, I want to hear from you! Who are your inspirations? Who do you look up to and why? What characteristics do your greatest inspirations possess? We all have someone we have in the back of our mind that does something right, so who is yours? Take a second and let me know in the comments who your greatest inspirations are and why you choose to follow them. I want to know! 🙂
As photographers and artists, as much as we like to think otherwise, we’re a bit sensitive to critique. Not that it’s a weakness – it’s natural. Being an artist is an incredibly vulnerable profession – you’re putting your bare soul out into the world, and when it gets a little battered and bruised, it’s hard not to let it get to you. I’ve worked countless other jobs that weren’t in a creative field, and I’ll gladly admit that a boss screaming at me for stapling papers incorrectly is NOTHING compared to someone making a mumbling, “I…guess people like this…?” comment under their breath at a gallery opening. The former is easy to handle. My heart and soul is not in those staples – they want me to rip them out and do them over again? Gladly. But the latter example…I’ll be honest I still remember how much that hurt. I don’t even like typing it.
But with all the bad comments, there is usually some good, and many of us bounce back and forth in a kind of equilibrium. And while, personally, one negative comment will still kill the upbeat mood of 100 good ones (I know it’s stupid, and it’s getting better, but it’s still a struggle), rarely is there anything that can be said that cancels out any negative setbacks I’ve had…except for this. Except of these 5 little words that many of us haven’t heard in years.
I remember vividly, the first time in a long time that someone uttered this to me. I was driving my ice cream truck around town –
Small timeout so you can freak out for a second…yes, my mom and I own a small ice cream truck, Mr Pugsley’s Ice Cream (click that link to like the Facebook page, my mom would love it!). I don’t run it much anymore, but my mom still does. I love it, but to be honest, it’s a brutal job. It gets hot in Montana (usually at least 100 degrees), and you’re in that heat all day, no doors, sitting on a tiny seat cushion with the engine running underneath it. Hot engine air pumps out onto your legs, you’re swimming in sunscreen, going 1 mph down every street you’ve already been down a million times, dealing with screaming kids, inconsiderate teenagers, rude parents, angry dogs and all while that fucking circus music is playing above you. The awesome people and hilarious stories all make it worthwhile, but it can be pretty tough to keep your sanity. Seriously, next time you see the ice cream truck, throw an extra dollar in the tip jar – that job’s a lot harder than you think.
So back to it. About 5 years ago I was finishing my Master’s in college. I was taking summer courses and paying my way through school by running the ice cream truck every spare second I had. This day was like any other, but the end is what really hit me hard:
5:50: Run 6 miles.
6:50: Do dishes, prep food for dinner, finish writing 8-page Cognitive Dissonance/Situated Cognition paper. Turn in online before 8:00.
8:20: Friend texts. “It’s only a 4-page paper, I just don’t understand how to do the calculations is all. Can you help me out?” I say yes. She emails me her paper and I check over to make sure the calculations are correct. They aren’t. I fix her calculations and email it back.
10:30: Shower, slather on sunscreen and gather things for the ice cream truck.
11:20: First customers. Three teenage girls driving a 2008 Ford Focus. “Do you have anything that’s strawberry?” asked Girl #1 without even looking up from her phone. “Sorry,” I said. “I have huckleberry, would that be okay?” Girl #2 rolled her eyes. “Eww,” she said, “That sounds disgusting.” Girl #3 clearly agrees. “Let’s just go to Dairy Queen,” she whined. “This sucks.”
<Insert “Mean Girls” reference here>
1:26: Temperature hits 100 degrees.
3:30: I run by a friend’s house to check on her cat while she’s out of town. She has no cat food in the house. I run to the nearest gas station, buy some cat food, come back and feed her.
4:30: Made routine stop at a house with 5 kids and Cruella DeVille mom. She only lets them have what is free (though she clearly has enough money for tanning and cigarettes). I give them a few popsicles and tell them not to tell their mom, hoping one day she might cough up some change to cover the weekly dent she makes in my donation jar. Wishful thinking, I know.
4:42: Temperature hits 104 degrees.
5:30: A man stops me in traffic to say his dog is missing, and since I’ll be driving the streets all night that if I see it on my route to give him a call. He gives me his phone number, address and description of his dog. I tell him I’ll keep a lookout.
6:40: I head home to grab a bit to eat. The air conditioner has leaked all over the carpet, so I put a bowl underneath it and clean up what I could. I’ll get the rest later. I head back out.
7:30: I find the missing dog. I call the number but no answer, so I take it to the address. She’s a hyper Border Collie named Bella, and secretly I want to keep her. He’s not home, but his neighbor, and elderly woman, starts screaming at me and accuses me of trying to steal this man’s dog. I explain I’m actually bringing the dog back, but she just shakes her fist at me and walks into her house. I wait another 10 minutes and he pulls up. Crisis averted.
8:20: I realize I forgot to refill my water bottle when I stopped by my house. I’m out of water but I’ve only got an hour or so left, so I’ll just ignore it.
9:30: I make my last round through a familiar neighborhood and am waved over by a little boy and his dad. He takes awhile to ponder the choices, and I don’t want to rush him but in the back of my mind I know I have to get home before it gets dark – this truck has no working headlights. After narrowing down his options he chooses a chocolate ice cream sandwich. He gives me the money and takes his frozen treat.
“What do we say?” asked the father.
“Thank you,” replied the little boy.
“Aww, you’re welcome bud!” I said back.
“And what else do we say?” asked the dad once more.
I waited for a second. I didn’t know what else he was supposed to say. He paid me, he said thanked me…I wasn’t sure what else the dad was talking about. But his son looked up at me, with big, brown eyes bordered by long lashes and said with complete sincerity five words I hadn’t heard in years:
“You’re doing a good job.”
“Oh, wow,” I stuttered. “Thank you so much. Thank you so, so much.”
He smiled, his dad dropped $0.50 in the donation jar and I headed on my way. I was completely silent until I walked into the empty house and sat down at the dining room table, set down my water bottle, and cried.
You’re doing a good job.
I couldn’t remember the last time someone had told me that, and I’ll never forget how hard it hit me when someone finally did. Not assumed I already knew, not insinuated it in a round-about way, but had actually said the words.
As artists we’re constantly looking for some kind of affirmation that we’re on the right path. We’re looking for something to prove we’re not throwing our lives away; that all this time spent learning random Photoshop skills on YouTube at 4:00 in the morning isn’t for nothing. We’re always bouncing back and forth between feeling free and feeling lost, feeling creative and feeling crazy, feeling independent and feeling alone. We’re all going through it – it’s a natural part of navigating life as an artist. But at least today, we can reach out to a fellow artist and say the 5 words they have probably forgotten what it’s like to hear:
You’re doing a good job.
I hope you tell this to someone today. It could be your mom, or it could be the person that gets your coffee, it doesn’t matter. Someone deserves to hear this, and they would love to hear it from you.
And if you ever need someone to talk to, feel free to talk to me – I answer best through email or on my Facebook page, Jenna Martin Photography :).
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