I frequently receive emails and messages asking for direction on how one becomes a successful nature photographer. There’s a lot of discussion between photographers on what makes a successful image. While there are many well tested practices for creating great photographs with which to build a beautiful portfolio, that is only half of the recipe to success. Successfulness in any field is defined by many other important factors. If these factors are ignored you may cripple your attempts to build a career; regardless of the quality of your images. In answer to those that have asked for my advice on the subject I’ve compiled my thoughts into the following ten points.
1). Life Isn’t Fair. Successful photographers don’t waste time wallowing in self pity. Take responsibility for your actions and be thankful for life’s lessons. If something doesn’t work out as you’d hoped, just accept it. Perhaps the negotiations with a potential client that you were excited about fell through. Realize that life is full of mistakes and that this is how we learn. Success is about not being deterred when your plans don’t come to fruition. Evaluate what you could do differently the next time and move on.
2). Stay Focused. You will be challenged at every turn, so be ready for it. Always be in control of your emotions and actions, if you let others put you under their thumb you may never get up again. Don’t allow the rejection of a handful of envious, disgruntled peers send you into fits of depression. If you’ve been used by another photographer or client for their personal gain, remove yourself from the situation and never look back. Always keep your goal in your sights.
3). Change Is Inevitable. Nature photographers are constantly confronted with change, so embrace it. It could be a change in the weather when you’re all prepared for one type of shot, or something more technical like film cameras being replaced by digital. I remember hearing so many photographers say they’d never switch from their 35mm film cameras to digital when that transition began. They all shoot digital now. Our fear should not be of the unknown, but rather of getting stuck in the same routine. Force yourself outside your comfort zone; that is often when we accomplish our greatest work.
4). Don’t Fight It. The only thing you can control in life when faced with a difficult situation is how you respond to the problem. If you drop your lens and it breaks you can respond by getting really pissed off and say your whole trip is ruined, or you can be thankful for the images you were able to record prior to the accident; I’m speaking from personal experience here. If you were responsible and carried insurance on your multi-thousand dollar gear then you wouldn’t have to fret so much. (Now we’re getting back to point number one about taking responsibility for your actions). Points one and four are closely linked. When life hands you rain clouds instead of sunsets, take pictures of the rain clouds and hope for rainbows.
5). Embrace The Challenges. Every successful photographer has taken chances on something at some point in their career, some more than others. Running a profitable business requires you to. I am certainly not saying that you should just recklessly jump into anything, but even buying equipment is a risk. Do you have a business plan before you go and drop five, ten or even fifty thousand dollars on camera gear? If you’ve invested the time in creating a plan to determine the consequences of your decisions before you act, then they become a lot less fearful. A successful photographer is not afraid of uncharted waters.
6). Live In The Present. Living for yesterday is one of the greatest pitfalls for anyone trying to build a future of any kind. While there are certainly valuable lessons to be learned from our past life experiences, you should be careful not to waste too much time and energy in ‘times gone by’. If you want to be a successful photographer put your effort into what you are working on today and tomorrow, not in what you did yesterday.
7). Learn From Your Failures. Not much mystery here. Have you ever gone out and shot a few hundred frames only to realize you forgot to put a memory card in your camera? Don’t do it twice. Even the most successful photographers make mistakes; they also learn from them. You should view every failure as an opportunity to improve yourself. To be a successful photographer you must be willing to correct the future by what you’ve learned in the past.
8). Celebrate The Achievements Of Your Peers. Successful photographers are not afraid of another’s accomplishments. It takes a person with confidence in themselves to find happiness in another’s success. They are not envious or spiteful towards their peers and/or competitors. Congratulate your peers on their achievements, you will draw more people to yourself as a result. There is a vast difference between arrogance and confidence; you never need to apologize for confidence. I’ve seen too many talented, but insecure photographers out there. Don’t be one of them.
9). Be Prepared To Earn It. Don’t expect anything to come to you on a silver platter. Even if you have a beautiful portfolio and have invested thousands of dollars in gear, it doesn’t make you any different than the other millions of photographers out there that have done the same. I’ve heard photographers bitch and moan bitterly that essentially ‘one day the world will recognize them ’. They will be waiting for a long time. Those that are successful make themselves thus and don’t wait for society to realize what a gift they’ve been given by their existence. Do something noteworthy with your work, make your images uniquely your own. Successful photographers don’t wait for the world to recognize them, they are too busy living their dream.
10). It All Takes Time. It has been said that there is no shortcut to success; truer words were never spoken. If you’re expecting to ‘make it’ overnight you should consider a different career path, maybe fast food is more your speed. To be a successful nature photographer you must have commitment and dedication. Your dedication will be tested repeatedly along the way. Keep your head down and work hard. Learn from your mistakes and celebrate your achievements, but be humble about them. Realize that this is a journey, not a destination. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.
– Nathaniel Smalley