Success in photography is about more than luck…
Man, you are really lucky.
It’s a phrase photographers hear a lot. Sometimes it refers to the fact that we “get” to take pictures all the time (and totally neglects how tough a business photography is to make a living at).
That is not what I’m talking about. I hear “man, you are really lucky” about particular photos, and I’ve even been guilty of saying it myself.
More Than Luck
Success = Skill + Preparedness + Opportunity + Persistence
Luck is often an element in photography and any given shoot can be lucky. The weather is just perfect. The subject is in the exact mood to evoke the way the photographer wants. The photographer happens to be in the right place at the right time to capture something rare.
Luck isn’t the whole story though, or even the defining element. When people talk about luck, they are acknowledging success they don’t understand. A photographer is “lucky” because the speaker has never had the opportunity to make a photo like that, or because when an opportunity presented itself, they could not take advantage of it. And maybe, the photographer was just lucky and a thunderstorm rolled through right as he needed it. The photographer seized the opportunity.
I prefer not to think about success and failure in terms of luck. Luck makes the photographer a passive recipient of circumstance. In the luck paradigm, photos happen to photographers.
You don’t take a photo, you make it. – Ansel Adams
Rather, as a photographer, I try to be proactive. That is what the equation is about. I create my photos. To do that, I need all four elements to come together.
Lets talk about the four elements of my (and probably many other peoples’) equation for success.
We often think of things like raw file processing, focusing the camera, or picking exposure as photographic skills. But photographers use a much wider set of skills than that. And, those skills can be very domain specific.
For example, landscape photographers are often weather buffs since weather is a defining factor in great landscape photos. Knowing when you are likely to get favorable weather (and what favorable weather looks like on a forecast) is a vital skill.
Many wildlife photographers become wildlife experts, at least in terms of the habits of their favorite subjects. They learn when and where their subjects mate and put on mating displays. They find out where their subjects hunt and get water. In short, they develop the skills of knowing where they might find a photogenic opportunity.
Do not neglect motor skills either. Photographers, particularly those working in fast paced situations, need physical skills as much as any NBA basketball star. Tracking a fast moving bird through a view finder and super-telephoto lens while maintaining focus is a real physical skill. It requires hours of practice, repetition and upkeep.
Being able to quickly get in exactly the right position, high or low, is something Josh and I jokingly call “photographer yoga”. It is a real thing and creates photographic opportunities that didn’t otherwise exist. The more we use “photographer yoga” the quicker and easier it becomes to get photos from unusual angles.
All the skills in the world won’t do any good if you don’t show up prepared. Being prepared isn’t just about arriving with an empty card and a full battery, or even with the right lens.
Throughout a shoot, a photographer needs to know what they are prepared for. If a bird flies by right now, am I prepared to take a photo of it? Are my exposure settings right and appropriate? Which area of the sky will produce good exposures and which will be badly back lit? Could the mounted lens make a photo I would like in terms of perspective?
Maybe the answer is yes, I can make the photo. If I have a telephoto lens on and my exposure settings are appropriate for a fast moving subject I am prepared to grab a shot of a bird flying by without much warning. But, maybe the answer is no because I have a wide angle lens mounted and am set up for a landscape shot.
Keeping track of what type of situations you can reasonably take a photo in at each moment keeps you from wasting time and energy chasing images that are out of the realm of possibility.
Preparedness extends beyond the purely photography aspects of making photos too. Are you prepared to weather the weather? It’s hard to persist when you are wet, cold, overheated or being eaten alive by bugs.
Did you bring water and snacks? If not, and you need to wait for an opportunity, you may get impatient and your mind may wonder. I personally get hangry. For me, being prepared means bringing snacks and water so I don’t get easily distracted, impatient and frustrated.
Opportunity is the element of this equation most often referred to as luck. Once you know how to do something, and you are prepared to do it, it has to happen in front of your camera. But opportunities don’t generally just happen on their own. A photographer like Dan Winters does not just happen to end up in a studio with a celebrity. A NatGeo photographer doesn’t just happen to be on the scene when a jaguar takes a caiman.
Those opportunities are earned. Whether it is access to a celebrity, or having a natural spectacle occur right in front of the lens in the perfect light, the photographer and their staff worked very hard to earn that opportunity. They apply skills, prepare and persist to gain the opportunity.
Opportunity is not just a function of the other elements though. We must seek opportunity. If you like making car photos, you need to be around cars. How can you do that? Attend car shows, make friends with car people and become part of that community. You will earn trust and access. You will earn opportunities to make the photos you want.
It is hard to make great photos of the Rocky Mountains if you live along the Texas coast. If you want mountain photos, you are going to have to travel or move. You can plan for that, but do not discount the opportunities available to you where you are. Think about what you can do easily and take advantage of those opportunities. I visit the Texas coast frequently because it is available and I can easily take advantage of the opportunities it offers.
And now we come to what I think is the most important element in the equation: persistence. Photography, any type of photography, can be incredibly frustrating. You can hike for hours only to be foiled by weather. At a football game, all the great action happens at the far sideline. Maybe the birds that should have been putting on mating displays decided to stay home instead. Most discouraging of all, everything comes together, but you botch the focus, exposure or framing.
Whatever you like to photograph, you will fail more often than not. Making great photos is HARD. It takes persistence and sometimes we go through seemingly unending droughts of opportunity, and creativity. I’ve seen and read more biographical material about photographers and other creators than I care to admit. Without fail, every single one has a (or many) story of almost quitting because it just wasn’t working.
A photographer lays in mud and piss for hours waiting for a rare butterfly that never shows up. They miss the big play at the super bowl. “Real Life” drags them away from photography and it feels like they will never be able to go back. A project almost gets them and their friends killed. Despite seeing beauty in the world around them, they are unable to capture it on film or sensor.
Photography is HARD. Hell, life is HARD. To succeed, you have to fail, and then repeat… and repeat… and repeat…
Success in Photography
Do you want success in photography? When you see a photo and think “man, they are lucky” or “I could have taken that if …”, ask yourself 4 questions:
What skills did the photographer use to make the photo?
How did the photographer prepare themselves to succeed?
What opportunities did the photographer seek out to find the image?
How long did they have to persist, how many failures did they create, before they realized their vision?
There is no magic to success in photography, or in any other field. Successful people work hard, struggle, and fail, but we only see the successes.
Learn to see the struggle.
Emulate that and success will follow.