Five Steps to Becoming a Better Photographer

In her photography-themed senior session, Darbey reminded me of all the ways she has intentionally pursued becoming a better photographer. I have loved seeing how much Darbey has grown as a photographer (and a human) in the past four years that I’ve known her.   This girl is ready to spread her wings and triumph, and I am in awe to watch what she’s doing.

 1.  Take photographs: a bazillion (and a half) if necessary.

Being a photographer is one part born talent, one part acquired knowledge, and three parts practiced skill.  Yes, it’s possible to be a self-made photographer, but requires the perfectly integrated knowledge coupled with practice. Practice isn’t fun.  I remember when I just started piano lessons.  Practicing was the absolutely last thing I wanted to do, and my Mom knew it.  She created a sticker chart reward system — practice thirty minutes, get a stick; get 100 stickers, receive an American Girl doll. With tears, obstinance, and that beckoning Kirsten-doll, I made it past that hurdle and eventually became the accomplished musician I wanted to be.

Same with photography:  to be a better photographer, practice brings perfection.  Whatever incentive it takes, do it.  Whether it’s a Project 52 or a Project 365 community, or a self-awarded prize at an arbitrary milestone, just do it!  Just take photos, create art, practice skills, and go take photos.  Darbey  not only completed her Project 52, but showcased it at a local art gallery in Hickory, NC AND got a write-up in the local newspaper!

2.  Find a mentor (or two) on this journey to become a better photographer.

As beautiful as the world of photography is, it can also be keenly lonely.   As a self-employed artist, the odds are stacked against us.  Community is key. Loneliness is the enemy.  Finding a photographer who has walked through those early days — and triumphed, despite the odds — will be invaluable to your continued success.  Ask them question. Lots of question.  Buy your mentor coffee, bring along a notepad, and learn through their experiences how to navigate this photography world.  (And don’t forget to flatter, appreciate, bless, cherish:  they’re giving you their time, so make sure they know it’s valued.)

Darbey actually has two mentors;  I’m flattered to be one of them.   She has peppered me with questions, shadowed me on jobs, and accepted gracefully the brain-dump of information I’ve thrown her way.  But she’s also blessed me in her world:  she encourages, celebrates, me.  She appreciates me, as her mentor, and makes sure I know it.

3.  Shadow a photographer.

Head knowledge only goes so far.  Eventually, it has to become practical, hands-on experience.  As you follow different photographers on shoots, you’re watching what they do and how they do it; you’re seeing how they react to unique challenges and turn them into assets; you’re watching the grunt work that goes into artistic masterpieces.  As you learn how they do what they do, you can also learn what you do *and don’t* like about their style of photography.

4.  Start small.  Do the grunt work.

Success doesn’t happen overnight.  It can’t.  It won’t.  So don’t expect it to.    Find friends willing to model for you.  Take on a couple free photo sessions, to build your portfolio.  Do the smallest of the small job — and do it well.  As you dedicate yourself to your art, you are proving your worth to yourself and to your future clients.

5.  Dream big, but plan the baby steps.

Where do you actually want to go?  What do you actually want to do?  How are you going to get there?  Write it down.  Show it to your mom/bestfriend/boyfriend/husband and let them rejoice with you in the goals you’ve made as you start taking the babysteps to reach your destination.  Celebrate each little victory, learn from each failure.

Start the blog you’ve always wanted to, make plans for further education (photo conference?  degree course?  online learning?), take trips specifically to photograph new areas. Do what you need to do to get where you need to go.   I’m still dreaming, still planning the baby steps, still watching my dreams turn to plans and my plans turn to reality.  Just today, in fact, I added a few more “dreams to achieve” (in pen  – more permanent than pencil, you see) in my well-worn notebook and started listing the babysteps to achieve them.

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